Leadership Lessons from the World Cup

No one asked for it, but here are some lessons I’ve noticed during the greatest sporting event ever, the FIFA World Cup.

Leadership is a Team Sport

In baseball, one person scores pretty regularly. They are called home runs. It’s one on one (batter vs. pitcher), and those odds are pretty good. No team involvement needed for a run; the only necessary thing is to capitalize on an opportunity (namely a bad pitch). However, in soccer this rarely, if ever happens. Unless the goalie scores on a goal kick, there is a team effort involved in seizing opportunity. Soccer is the premier team sport. Sure there are names’ in soccer, even names that stand above all the rest (Pele, Messi, etc.), but those names are nobodies without someone defending the goal, someone moving the ball up the field, and someone delivering a beautiful cross from the corner. Nearly every goal in soccer is a team effort, and without a team, it’s 11 on 1 for 90 minutes. I’m not one for those odds. What does this mean for leadership? You can’t do it alone. Surround yourself with forwards, midfielders, and defenders who know their role in accomplishing the overall mission.

Leadership is a Marathon

When I played soccer in high school, we would always brag that soccer players could do it for 90 minutes’. However immature (and completely untrue) it is, the point rings loud and clear when it comes to leadership: unlike baseball, leadership is not something that happens 90 feet at a time. Leadership takes stamina, commitment, and drive. Even if you score early and often, the game is a full 90 minutes: anything can happen if you let up. And you may have some reserves that can come and relieve you, but overall: you’ll play the entire game. You and your team. For leaders, this means we (and our teams) have to be ready for the long-haul. It’s not enough that you are conditioned for 90 minutes: everyone who steps on the field must be ready for a 90-minute game as well.

Leadership Requires Patience

A lot of people who don’t usually watch soccer, upon watching soccer, complain about the low scoring nature of the game. Unlike hockey, which is also low-scoring, the game is played on a large field, with wide open spaces and a larger goal guarded by one man. It seems natural to believe that goals should be easy to come by. To the contrary, goals are very difficult to come by unless there is a severe mismatch between the two teams (as is the case of 3rd-ranked Portugal and 105th-ranked North Korea, which resulted in a 7-0 blowout). Why is it so difficult to score? Two primary reasons: defenders and miscues. The same is true of leadership: it’s hard to win, much less score a lot, due to opposition and obstacles. What this means is this: scoring in leadership, just like scoring in the World Cup, requires patience. There will be opposition. There will be errors, by you and the people around you. There will be miscues, miscommunication, and missed opportunity. But that’s OK. Because often times, one big goal reached will win you the game.

Leadership Takes Planning & Poetry

Often times, the most interesting matches in the World Cup are those played between the European teams and the South American teams. The reason they are so interesting is because the general playing style of both teams are so different. European teams like Germany, Italy, France, and England are very precise, rely heavily on set pieces (corner kicks, free kicks, and restarts) for generating scoring opportunities, and are very structured in how they both attack and defend. On the flip side of the coin, South American teams like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay are fluid in the way they move the ball forward, passing very quickly from one player to the next in what looks more like a dance routine than an attack on the opposing goal. Most often, the team that walks away with the win is not the team that gets the most breaks from the ref or the most lucky wind gusts. The team that walks away with the win is the team that can harness their own playing style, and also use the opposing playing style to their advantage. The team that can move the ball fluidly and effectively use set pieces is the team that scores the most goals. The takeaway for leadership is this: both styles are needed. As leaders we should plan effectively like European teams, but in the midst of the game we must also be able to adjust according to where the ball is, where our supporting cast is, and where we are with regards to the mission. Within the context of leadership, we should be able to plan effectively, but also lead poetically. Planning and poetry are both absolutely crucial to effectively accomplishing the mission, whether the mission be exercising leadership or scoring a goal.

Leadership Has Spectators

The World Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world, with over 716 million unique viewers watching the final game alone (compare that to the Super Bowl’s paltry 100 million viewers). Estimates for non-unique viewers over the course of the tournament are upwards of 30 billion people. That’s nearly 5 times the population of the globe. Ridiculous. Imagine the pressure on the 22 people on the field. Not just the thousands in the stands, but literally the millions of people watching around the world, including your own home country. In your everyday context you probably don’t have millions watching, but it’s still important to remember that we have spectators too. There are people watching your every move. Some of them are cheering for you, others want the other side” to win. There are some learning from your mistakes, some wishing they could perform as greatly as you do, some watching with expectation as you approach a goal, and still others wanting nothing more than for you to fail. So what should your response be? The same as the 22 men on the field come World Cup Final day: just play the game.

Leadership Should Be Fun

I was watching the Portuguese team absolutely slaughter the North Korean side, and it was obvious why: the Portuguese had more talent. But in addition to that, something else emerged in my line of thought. With two games played for most groups, there are two major European teams that are playing as well as expected: Portugal & Holland. Why? Sure, they’re talented (3rd and 4th ranked in the world, respectively), but Spain is 2nd and Italy is 5th, and they are on the bubble in their respective groups, as is 8th ranked England and 9th ranked France. So what gives? Smiles. That’s the difference. When watching the Portugal and Holland sides, you can tell they are enjoying being on the greatest stage in the world. In fact, I’m willing to wager that they could careless who they are playing, or how many people are watching. They simply enjoy playing soccer. As much as I don’t like Cristiano Ronaldo, seeing him laugh after bumbling a ball in the box only to score the goal breaking his 2-year drought was hypnotic. It’s fun watching people having fun doing something they love. So leaders: when’s the last time you laughed while leading?

June 22, 2010