The vital role of sales leadership: Lions and sheep

By Jay Ludgrove Business, Digital Marketing, Lifestyle, Sales, Social Media, Startups Comments Off on The vital role of sales leadership: Lions and sheep


Can a bad leader harm a sales team (sheep leading lions) and can even a good leader struggle to get results (lions leading sheep)?

I’ll deal with the second part of the question first, and the example of an NFL coach since I am a fan of the Green Bay Packers and it is a sport that I love.

Once a bad coach ‘loses the locker room’ his goose is cooked, it is simple as that, because sports is the ultimate results-driven business. The rewards are great, but conversely, so is the cost of failure. A good leader can struggle to get results, especially early in their tenure, because the players they inherit are not of their choosing. The coach’s role is to assess the talent at their disposal, determine which existing players are at the required standard, which need to be moved on, and who could be brought in to improve the team’s overall performance.

It can take time for a new leader to make their mark, assess the available talent, and get them to buy into their vision of how future success is achieved. One of the key attributes for any leader, NFL or sales, is the need for a clear purpose, which then has to be both communicated to and bought into by the team in order for the purpose to succeed.

Even great coaches can sometimes take time to make an impact, in this instance the owner faces a stark choice: Back your leader and give them the time they need to succeed, or if results are unsatisfactory, bring in a replacement. But replacing the leader on a regular basis is more likely to lead to continued instability and therefore continued lack of success.

It is often the owner with the courage to back a leader they believe in who is ultimately rewarded with long-term success, but in both sales and the NFL the need for immediate success can lead to regular changes at the top.

If you really believe in the leader, you must be prepared to give them time to get the team as they want it to achieve success. Good leaders do not become bad leaders overnight, and the best teams evolve in a stable environment. Good leaders can therefore struggle to get results in the short term, it is all down to how much time the owner is prepared to give them to get it right.

The main difference of course between the NFL and a sales leader is that often the sales leader is also the owner of the company. NFL owners of course bring in specialist coaches to manage the playing side, since they often lack the expertise to do it themselves. This is also the case in larger organisations, but for some/most smaller businesses your Sales Manager IS also the owner.

This is where the biggest problems can occur. If the owner is also the sales leader, the individual style of leadership becomes so much more critical, because there is nobody to relace the owner if the results are unsatisfactory. This is the classic example of sheep leading lions, with nobody in a position to intervene to improve matters except the potential source of the problem themselves.

A wise owner will recognise if their sales leadership is suspect and bring in a specialist to run the team on their behalf. But in a small business this is not always an option, so it is down to the owner/manager to look at themselves and make the necessary changes to achieve success.

This starts with having a clear purpose and getting the team to buy into it completely, as well as communicating that purpose to clients and customers alike. That way, everyone knows where they stand and are pulling in the same direction.

With the Green Bay Packers our most successful coaches have been ‘Curly’ Lambeau, who moulded a series of great teams in the inter war period, Vince Lombardi during the 1960s and f more recently Mike McCarthy, responsible for our last NFL championship in 2010. Good coaches, just like good sales leaders, have longevity; they create dynasties, teams that enjoy periods of success, not just one season wonders. They were backed, given time, and they delivered.

In both NFL and Sales Management it is significant that it isn’t always the best players that go on to become the best managers. The managerial role is all about getting the best out of other people, and often great players lack the people skills to become great managers. In the sales environment, the biggest biller is not automatically the best choice to be the Sales Manager. If they cannot provide the purpose or possess the necessary soft skills, it is better to leave them in the star role they are best at.

Bad leaders can, of course, acquire additional soft skills through training, but it’s a question of whether they are willing to accept that their skills are lacking and a positive desire to improve them that will enable them to improve in this area.

Covid has undoubtedly had a major impact on how sales teams operate, remote working or a hybrid between office and home have become increasingly the norm, which means an empathic approach to sales management has become more important than ever. Team mental welfare, especially with members who work remotely, is of paramount importance, and a good Sales Manager will have the mental welfare of their team at the front of their agenda.

Soft skills, the ability to bring the best out of people in a supportive, collaborative environment, an empathic approach to team members, these are the skills that a modern Sales Manager needs to possess. The more dictatorial approach and purely numbers-based criteria for success belong to the past, not the present, and certainly not the future.

Good leaders will always succeed; it’s a question of whether they are given the time to do so. Bad leaders can be converted into good leaders if they have the correct attitude and mindset to realise that there is a need to improve. If they do not, they will remain bad leaders and success will continue to remain elusive.


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