10 Leadership Lessons From The World Cup

Jun 13, 2018 1 Min Read
world cup, football
[This article was published at an earlier date] [Updated on 14 June 2018]

For our organisations and our lives

Every four years, the magic of the World Cup gets to me. At my first affair with the World Cup, I watched Diego Maradona’s “hand of God” goal and saw Gary Lineker from Everton emerge top scorer of the World Cup.

Since then, I managed to go to three World Cups and watch the matches live. My first opportunity was in the United States (US) in 1994. I flew to France in 1998, watching a memorable semi-final whereby I witnessed France edge out Croatia thanks to Lilian Thuram’s wonder goals.

In 2002, I traveled to Korea and witnessed one of the most amazing spectacles of the World Cup – watching Korea beat Italy, thanks to an Ahn Jung-hwan winner. The memory of 18 June 2002 at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium is forever engrained in my mind as I celebrated with Koreans as if I was a fellow countryman.

A few days later, it was another celebratory affair as Koreans embraced me when Korea beat Spain on penalties to become the first ever Asian team to make it to the World Cup semi-finals.

As I reminisced the last World Cup in Brazil, I uncovered some of its great lessons to us on leadership. Here are my Top 10:

1. Celebrate life

One of the “live” matches I watched was Jamaica in their sole appearance at the 1998 World Cup in France. Bob Marley’s boys played against Argentina that day and I sat in the stands watching in awe as Gabriel Batistuta hammered in a hat-trick to inflict a 5-0 defeat to the Jamaicans.

But you will not believe what happened in the stands. As goals leaked in, instead of being dismayed, the Jamaican fans were having one big party in the stadium. It did not matter that their team crashed out; they were just enjoying the whole experience.

The same thing happened at the Japan vs Croatia game at the 1998 finals. Japan lost 1-0 to Croatia but the Japanese fans were in a joyous mood. In life, we need to do likewise.

We need to revisit what success is and learn to embrace the present, and forget about future anxieties. Winning or losing in the game of life is relative. The real winners are those who celebrate and enjoy every moment of life.

2. Systems and structures almost always outweigh talent

Except for Argentina’s victory in Mexico in 1986, most World Cup teams do not win because of a single “talent” they have. It is the team that is most organised, where players are playing to their strengths and with a clear system and structure that wins the World Cup.

Germany has an amazing record of consistently being at the World Cup semi-finals more than any other nation in history. This is done regardless if they have a young team or if they had a seasoned team. Their consistency is not down to how their individual players stack up but due to their efficient system and structure.

Costa Rica, Algeria and Mexico showed us in World Cup 2014 that team organisation, tactical acumen and efficient systems aligned to players’ capability will far outweigh talent. Talent helps but it is far better to have processes and structures in your organisation.

3. Pressure is part and parcel of the game – learn to manage it

One of the English Premier League seasons saw numerous managers were fired within months. The biggest casualty, David Moyes, was not even given a full season before he was sacked from a club which previously benefited from having long-term trust in a manager.

The same pressure to succeed exists in the World Cup. As only one team out of the 32 will emerge the winner, there will be significant pressure on the other 31 managers.

Interestingly, it is somewhat similar in business. Business leaders share this common task with football coaches: managing pressure. So, what can we learn from successful coaches in the World Cup on “managing pressure”? Here are some quick tips:

  1. Stay focused – do not let external pressure detract you from your goals. Many football managers (and players) do not bother to read newspapers as it stresses them.
  2. Bust that stress – take steps daily to “de-stress” by engaging “letting off steam” rituals. All football coaches swear by rituals which help them de-stress.
  3. Think happy thoughts – the best coaches in the world know how to alleviate doubt and worry. In this World Cup, you will notice many managers smile when their team makes mistakes. Some use humour to absorb the pressure and turn it into positive energy. The best leaders in business do the same.

4. Flexibility matters

Just when you think you have a full team, injury or suspensions will hit. Even bad refereeing decisions which go against your team can cause derailment. This requires players and coaches to be flexible. The same happens in the workplace.

There are constant changes to deal with in your office such as leadership changes, miscommunications and employee turnover. Are you flexible enough to change and adapt? Great leaders adapt seamlessly and always have a contingency secondary plan when things do not pan out as expected. Do you?

5. You can still win when you lose

While Luis Suarez left the World Cup in disgrace, there are numerous players who will leave the World Cup with their heads held high. Two players who were celebrated in their nations and globally are James Rodriguez from Colombia and Tim Howard from the US.

Rodriguez’s performance proved to the world that he is ready to replace Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar as the new poster boy of world football. His goal against Brazil, 10 minutes from time, kept Colombians believing that there was hope. And he left Brazil 2014 a winner with 6 goals to his name.

James Rodriguez, the new poster boy of world football? Yup, we heard you…

Columbian player

Photo credit: Calcio Streaming | Flickr

Whilst Colombians knew Rodriguez, most Americans would not be able to differentiate movie director Ron Howard with Tim Howard.

In their last match before bowing out, the US faced the mighty Belgium. Howard made 16 saves in that match, the highest in a World Cup match since 1966, and single-handedly stood there and kept the US in the game. At the end of the day, he played for a lost side yet he was declared a winner.
So, how do you win when you lose?

  1. You win when people see authenticity – both Howard and Rodriguez were authentic in their play. They never allowed their will to win to waver.
  2. You win when you give your best – both players played their best, giving everything they could muster.
  3. You win when you fight to the very end – it could have been easy for Rodriguez and Howard to give up when the odds were against them. But both of them continued to fight to the very end with the hope of victory.
  4. You win when your performance is world-class – despite defeat, both players played world-class football throughout the games. For you to keep winning even when your team is losing, make sure you perform at world-class level.

Watch a video of America’s new-found love affair with Tim Howard.

6. Football is not an 11-man game

The 2014 World Cup witnessed the most number of substitutes scoring goals. With this, we must acknowledge that football is now a 14-man game. This means that coaches need to know when to bring in the three “fresh” men into the game. One of the most amazing substitute was the replacement of the flawless Dutch keeper at the end of extra time in their match against Costa Rica.

Tim Krull came into the game just for the penalty kicks and the Dutch won through Krull’s brilliance between the post. However, in the semifinals against Argentina, Dutch coach somehow forgot his secret weapon and did not opt to bring Krull in and the Dutch keeper could not save a single shot in the shootout.

The same applies at the workplace. Sometimes, when your team struggles to get things moving, look at some of the support structures to freshen things up. This would include bringing in temporary staff, consultants and possibly outsourcing work.

7. There is no “I” in team

Individuals will never win you the World Cup. You need a team to win the tournament. You need a decent keeper, sturdy backs, good flank-backs, strong midfielders, exciting wingers and someone who pops in the goals. Every role is crucial in the team.

The same is true in our organisations. Regardless of how you look at it, everyone counts. The receptionist whose role is to answer calls, for example, is crucial. If he or she does not answer the calls well, customers may get annoyed and move their business elsewhere.

Regardless of how well your business model or product and services are, having one part of the team malfunction can cause defeat across the board. To truly win in an organisation, you need a team – a team who works together, with each other and for each other.

8. Winning requires different formations

Formations matter. Two coaches whose teams were knocked out in the first round, Fabio Capello (Russia) and Roy Hodgson (England), were both dismissive that formations did not matter. But the best coaches seem to utilise players and different formations for different games.

Holland’s Louis van Gaal played a 5-man defence against Chile whilst he went on an attacking formation against Spain. He won both games. Teams need to have different strategies to overcome different opponents.

In business, the same applies. The same tried and tested formulas will not work in this new world where technology quickly nullifies old tactics.

9. Money may be the root of all failure

In the 2014 World Cup, the highest paid manager failed to steer his team through the group stages. Embarrassingly, Russia’s Capello whose salary is in excess of US$11mil failed to qualify from a group that included Belgium, South Korea and Algeria. In contrast, Mexican coach Miguel Herrera and Costa Rica’s Jorge Luis Pinto were two of the lowest paid amongst the 32 teams. Yet, they took their teams to great heights.

Money also played a crucial role in the demise of two African teams. Cameroon showed the world that money was much more important than winning. Ghanaian players took it a step further when they insisted that $3.5mil be flown in before their final group game against Portugal. In spite of getting their money before the World Cup ended, Ghana lost their game against Portugal. Clearly, money does not bring success.

A Stanford study of CEO’s pay from 1991 to 2002 clearly showed that CEO compensation was not tied to performance. A research by Dan Pink clearly outlines that more pay does not result in better performance for all employees. So, we need to be careful about throwing more money in to solve problems. People solve problems and paying over the odds for talented people may not necessarily work.

We see the same happen all over the world. Big companies with a stash of cash just cannot outwit smaller, more nimble and passionate companies. Wikipedia outwitted Microsoft Encarta, AirAsia did it a decade ago and the list goes on.

10. Never believe the doubters

I remember a few months before the Mexico 1986 World Cup, every naysayer was predicting gloom for Mexico. Stadiums were not ready, and the World Cup was bound to be a disaster. Mexico was even hit by an earthquake prior to the World Cup. At the end of that year’s World Cup, many heralded it as one of the best ever.

Similarly, everything seemed wrong with Brazil prior to the World Cup. Even the Brazilian President was under severe criticism. Yet, the tournament has been said to be one of the best; as good as or better than Mexico 1986.

Many times in these past years, my employees have come up to me and painted morbid pictures of disasters. Most of them are usually small issues. If I start believing all these doubters, I would go crazy and lose focus on what is key.

How many times have we listened to negative feedback and started to wander away from our goals? The reality is things will never be as bad as it seems. The truth lies in between. How we respond to these doubters will determine our success. As we saw in Brazil (and FIFA’s decision to stick to their plan in both Brazil and Mexico), great things can happen from supposedly “disasters”.


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Tags: Be A Leader, Values


Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com


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