Better to Be a Nerd, or a Jock?

December 6, 2022

by Stephen T. Messenger

A few years ago, my wife gave some half-joking advice to our teenage daughter. She said, “Don’t marry a jock. Marry a nerd.”

Now, the reasoning behind this comment none of us can remember. But it sparked a follow-up question that remains purposefully unanswered to this day: “Mom, did you marry a jock or a nerd?”

My bold, perhaps not entirely accurate, comeback always remains the same. I’m both, and proud of it!

Putting the high school stereotypes aside, the best leaders are “nerds” AND “jocks.” They’re as comfortable on the field of competition as they are in the books. They can have an intellectual conversation about strategy and tactics, all while able endure long hours of arduous physical and mental activity.


When running an Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) Program a few years ago, we recruited for SALs: Scholar-Athlete-Leaders. These three traits allow a military professional to study their craft, continuously exercise it, and lead on field of battle.

However, I would argue all three requirements are needed to be a leader whether a member of the military, sports team, Fortune 500 Company, or any organization. In other words, leaders need a little bit of nerd, a little bit of jock, and a whole lot of leadership within them.

George Patton

I have slightly denigrated George Patton in the past because of his excessive bravado; however, he’s an incredible example of a Scholar-Athlete-Leader.


George Patton was an avid reader, learned in classical military history. Even after struggling with reading into his adolescence, his intellectual work ethic overcame much of this problem. After leading well in the Pancho Villa Expedition and World War I, Patton was a true scholar during the inter-war years.

He served on a committee to write the manual on newly formed tank operations. He created his own theory on independent tank operations. Patton graduated the Army’s Command and General Staff College in the top 10% and earned the title of distinguished graduate at the Army War College.

He also wrote a paper called “Surprise” prior to World War II, which warned of a potential Japanese attack on Hawaii. He studied, learned, and created knowledge. Like Patton, the best leaders are continuous readers, writers, and thinkers of their profession.


Not all professions require physical prowess like Patton’s. But even when not mandated, leaders need physical training to help the body cope with stress. Athletics also shape a state of mind about the relentless pursuit of winning, competitiveness, and improvement.

Patton was a great athlete in horseback riding, track and field, and pistol shooting. He even competed in the modern pentathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics finishing fifth. He returned to be a fencing instructor and first Army Officer to hold the title “Master of the Sword.”

His history of athletics certainly shaped his desire to excel at anything he did. Great leaders have a winning mindset. They understand that there are winners and losers, and when to push home that point.

Athletics shape how people train for and attack problems, and physical aptitude translates into mental toughness.


Finally, George Patton was a true leader. Like or hate some of his interpersonal skills, Patton delivered phenomenal results across three wars, peacetime activities, developing operational combat theories, and his individual life.

In World War II, while he did create much angst and controversy for his leadership, Patton was the go-to tank commander. On the battlefield, Patton arguably generated results as well as any wartime leader in history, and politics aside, was both feared by his adversaries and admired by his troops.

Bringing It All Together

Patton used his intellectual base and athletic prowess to lead in his profession. Because he studied his craft and had a competitive spirit, Patton led effectively on the battlefield.

This is a great lesson for all of us. I’m a little bit of a nerd when it comes to Army doctrine. I don’t necessarily like reading it, but I like knowing it and being able to use it as a starting and potential departure point if needed. If you don’t know what you should do, how can you do it better?

I’m also a little bit of a jock (although becoming littler as I age). I work out daily, seek competition, and maintain a winning mindset. Even watching sports creates a desire to excel against an opponent, be it in war or in business.

Are You a Nerd or a Jock?

At the end of the day, it’s okay to be both a nerd and a jock. You need to have components of both to lead effectively. The best leaders study their craft relentlessly and have a winning mindset, and they train their minds and bodies to be effective, no matter their profession.

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Subscribe at the link above to receive a free weekly email on a new leadership topic. Patton read, thought, discussed, and wrote about his profession. Yours is one of leadership. You need to get in on this!

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