How Early Athletic Beginnings Help Shape Leadership

How Early Athletic
Beginnings Help Shape

By Vanessa Damoulis, PhD.
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March 2024

This article delves into the profound influence of early athletic experiences on the leadership styles of three accomplished pharma and medtech executives:

Dr. Jeffrey Humphrey
Dr. Jeffrey Humphrey, MD, former CEO of RADD Pharmaceuticals, and board member of Cyteir Therapeutics, grew up wrestling and later achieved the advanced level of Pan American champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Dr. Mary Ruisi
Dr. Mary Ruisi, MD, Vice President of Clinical Development at Dragonfly Therapeutics, excelled as a multi-sport athlete in volleyball, basketball, and softball.
Skip Kiil, President of Cranial & Spinal Technologies at Medtronic, played Major League baseball after starring on his college National Championship team.

Conversations with each leader explores how, by competing in sports, they became comfortable with failure and developed the mental toughness and confidence to quickly rebound in times of uncertainty. There were also common themes that emerged around how sports can influence leadership capabilities like effective decision making (which, according to Bain1, is correlated with financial performance at a 95% confidence level across industries, geographies and company sizes1), resilience, team-building and mentorship; ultimately leading to business success within the biotechnology and medical technology sectors.

Being A Team Player

All three leaders credit their athletic backgrounds for instilling teamwork and leadership skills. Dr. Ruisi, drawing from her championship youth volleyball experience, emphasizes the importance of developing each player’s abilities to pursue a shared goal. She later applied this mindset to building and mentoring teams in pharma by elevating her team members during her role as a collaborative leader.

Similarly, Mr. Kiil’s team-first mentality from his college baseball days has been a guiding principle throughout his leadership career. It taught him to be a good teammate and that you “can’t be individually successful without other people.” He values creating an environment where people challenge each other to be their best.

Dr. Humphrey, who served as a team captain in wrestling, found that this early leadership experience gave him the confidence as an executive to build and lead successful teams in the biotech industry. He embraced the idea that “you can’t have success without sacrifice” and that “struggling together as a team creates something powerful.”

The leaders further emphasize the application of sports mindsets when it comes to leading teams. They adopt coaching approaches, striving to place team members in roles that align with their strengths, mentoring them toward solutions rather than providing direct answers.

Practicing Resilient Leadership

The ability to perform under pressure is a common thread in sports and leadership. Dr. Humphrey drew parallels between the total focus required in martial arts and the clarity needed in high-stakes business meetings. He believes the 'phenotype' of grit and persistence doesn't leave you after a competitive athletic career. It shapes your mindset for life.

Mr. Kiil, having played pro baseball, understands the importance of delivering results when it counts, by always striving to out prepare his opponents. He applies the same to the demands of the business world.

Dr. Ruisi's experience in volleyball taught her to rebound quickly from mistakes, a skill she applies in navigating challenges in her pharma career.

All three leaders recognize the inevitability of failure and the importance of persistence.

In both sports and healthcare, they have learned that failures outnumber successes, requiring a willingness to learn, rebound quickly, and persist. The ability to move on rapidly after setbacks, often referred to as having a "short memory" like a goldfish, is a key lesson applied by these leaders in turning losses into wins.

Understanding the Relevance of Decision Making

Quick, calculated decision making is a skill shared by both top athletes and successful executives. While senior executives spend about 40% of their time on decision making2, the typical Fortune 500 company wastes, on an average, 500,000 days on ineffective decision making3. Wasted time is not something elite athletes think of favourably.

When it comes to understanding the decision-making style and approach of an executive – or even an athlete – all three leaders agree, preparation is key.

Dr. Humphrey highlights how martial arts teaches the importance of trusting one’s preparation and making the right move, a philosophy applicable to making informed decisions in the business realm. Over 75% of C-suite executives agreed that they frequently relied on intuition or gut feelings when making decisions4. They also signalled further that the idea of trusting oneself may become more important as one becomes a more senior leader. This idea of intuition and trust could simply be: preparation.

Mr. Kiil’s experience in baseball honed his ability to analyze patterns and weigh risks and rewards, crucial skills he employs in making significant business calls. These skills are part of the very definition of business decision effectiveness, yet most companies struggle despite many leaders having those skills. As a newer member to the Medtronic leadership team, Mr. Kiil brought novel, outside the box thinking to product development, and helped drive high reward changes to business strategy. We confirmed the two most-cited factors driving improvement of company decision making effectiveness are “leadership” and “new employees”4 with Mr. Kiil filling both these shoes in his role.

Dr. Ruisi’s bold decision to stick with her vision for clinical trial design, despite initial controversy, underlines the confidence and risk-taking mindset she gained from her athletic career. She further notes the relevance of quick decisions on the court stemming from substantial “background PRA” - preparation and research. Mastering fundamentals and setup lead to breakthrough performances. This idea of conviction in the face of dissent is a strong career-defining characteristic of effective executive leadership4.

62% of business leaders played sports in their youth5. With female executives, this number jumps to 90%6. 57% of senior executives attribute their youth sport experiences to their career success5. With skilful decision-making being honed from such a young age, it is no wonder that 75% of executives said that an applicant’s background in sports positively influenced their hiring decisions6. With this bias, having accurate tools to identify this gritty, tenacious, and highly prepared mindset can create a huge advantage to organizations as they expand their leadership teams7.


These leaders recognize that the skills and mindsets nurtured through sports allowed them to better serve their businesses, and patients. Dr. Ruisi encourages her own kids to play sports because of the consistency, confidence, and work ethic it builds.

Mr. Kiil believes that sports made him "hungry, humble, and smart" - traits that enable him to take calculated risks that drive innovation.

As Dr. Humphrey says, "You can't have success without sacrifice". Pushing through struggles together forges strong bonds and unlocks potential. While winning feels great, you learn more from losses. The grit to persevere, optimism to see opportunities, and courage to make bold decisions are nurtured on the playing field - and pay off in the boardroom.

Vanessa Damoulis
Written by: Vanessa Damoulis, PhD, Principal in Life Sciences grew up playing soccer and later transitioned into Olympic Weightlifting achieving a Silver spot at the Masters National Championship.


  1. Bain & Company. “Decision Insights”. 2013
  2. McKinsey & Company. “What is decision making?”. March, 2023
  3. McKinsey & Company. “Decision making in the age of urgency”. 2009
  4. Kingsley Gate, Co-published with The Financial Times. “Bad Decisions: Why Companies Miss The Most Important Factor in Executive Hiring”. July, 2023
  5. San Antonio Sports. Introducing the Power of Sport January, 2019
  6. PR Newswire. Groundbreaking Research Links Youth Sports and Career Success. January, 2019
  7. Kingsley Gate. Winning in Distinct Executive Decision-Making Environments. July, 2023