Management Lessons from the World Cup
The 2014 World Cup has come to a close, and while it was a fantastic competition—one of the best in recent history—we bet most managers out there are ecstatic it’s finally over. For a month, they tried not to calculate how many hours of productivity were lost each day while their team streamed games to their smartphones or snuck out early to watch those inconveniently-timed afternoon games. Running the numbers on that might have just sent them over the edge.
Before you cast the Cup from your memory, though, take a look at some of the management lessons we gleaned from the tournament below. That’s right: this productivity-killing sporting event may actually benefit your business after all! You just have to view it from the right angle.
1. Having the biggest star on your team doesn’t mean you’ll win.
For the past six years, the World Footballer of the Year award (Ballon d’Or) has been given to the same two players: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo took home the trophy in 2008 and 2013, and Messi every year in-between. Given this utter domination, you’d think that at least one of these two players would have brought home a World Cup trophy for his national team during that period. But, two World Cups later (2010 and 2014), and neither has. Argentina did make it to the final this year, in large part because of Messi’s performances earlier in the competition, but he couldn’t deliver in the end. And Ronaldo’s Portugal didn’t even make it out of the group stages. Why? Because while stars can win you games, only strong teams win tournaments. It’s too big a burden for one player; too big a task. And the same principle applies outside of sports. The star becomes the focus and supplants the team mentality. When one person gets all of the attention, the others on the team notice and it changes how they approach the game or project. They begin to place their confidence in the star, too, instead of in themselves. They forget how important their own role is and may step back and watch the star do his thing. And when things go wrong, well, then you have your scapegoat.
Germany won the trophy this year because the management (coaches) placed the burden, the expectations, and most importantly their confidence, on the whole team. Did Germany have stars among their ranks? You betcha. But, it was never about one person, or even two. When one star struggled, another stepped up. There could be no excuses. The eventual glory or disappointment would be shared equally. Now, we’re not saying that you shouldn’t recruit stars or designate leaders to your team, because you definitely should. But, stars won’t do you any good if you haven’t cultivated a whole-team mentality that leverages everyone’s strengths.
2. New stars are born when given the opportunity to shine.
Another lesson that this World Cup taught us is that you’ve got to provide opportunities for younger, less experienced players to shine. There were several young breakout stars of this tournament, and what an impression they made. How about our very own Jonathan Brooks (age 21), who came on late as a substitute to score the winning goal in our first game vs. Ghana (earning only his fifth cap for the U.S. Men’s national team in the process)? Or Columbia’s James Rodriguez (age 23), who won the Golden Boot award for most goals scored in the tournament? And let’s not forget that the goal what won the tournament for Germany was scored by Mario Gotze (age 23) on an assist from Andre Schurrle (also 23), both substitutes. Meanwhile, the #1 ranked team coming into the World Cup, Spain, fielded probably one of the most veteran, experienced teams out there and lost their first two games, effectively booking their plane tickets home. The point to all of this is that the best teams—in business as well as in sports—have a strategic mix of experienced and burgeoning players. What’s more, the best managers know how and when to use their young talent. They introduce them at the right moment, surround them with experienced players who provide structure and guidance, and let them do their thing. There’s a difference between coaching young players and stifling them, though. Once you send them out there, you have to trust that they’ll deliver.
3. Even the best strategy will fail if it doesn’t match your team’s strengths.
Many teams at the World Cup smartly adapted their play to suit their opponent. At this level, few teams can play one way the whole time and still come out on top. However, the most successful teams made sure that their strategies still matched their strengths, even as those strategies changed. The Netherlands’ strategy against Mexico is a perfect example. Because the conditions for this match were rough (high temps and high humidity), the Dutch elected to take things slow and conserve energy, which was completely opposite their approach to previous matches, where they came out flying. While this strategy was risky because it invited pressure from Mexico, and Mexico scored early, it was a clever approach in the long run, mainly because they had Arjen Robben in their arsenal. Robben is a quick, slick, elusive winger with boundless energy who can terrorize a defense all game long. But Robben didn’t terrorize the defenders all game; he waited until late in the match, when the game was tied and the Mexican defenders were tired, and then he gave them all he had. For about fifteen minutes he was a constant threat, dribbling at defenders, taking shots, and putting in deadly crosses. The Mexican defense couldn’t cope and finally one of the defenders fouled Robben inside the box and the Dutch scored the penalty. Game over.
This strategy only worked because the Netherlands adapted within the limits of their strengths. Other teams tried similar strategies throughout the tournament, but ended up losing. Like the Dutch, they conceded a goal early, but unlike the Dutch, they didn’t have a player like Robben who could turn the tables so quickly.
The management lesson here is that you can’t strategize in a vacuum. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest leadership theory or industry report on your competition. You may even come up with a solution that addresses the problem at hand. But if you don’t carefully consider each member of your team and what he or she brings to the table, then your solution doesn’t really have legs. You might be able to hold the competition at bay for a good stretch, but eventually they’ll score on you, and it’ll be in the 90th minute when there’s no time left to respond.
4. The best leaders are willing to make the big decisions.
When it comes time to choose who will lead your team to success, this World Cup has taught us that you had better choose someone who’s willing to make the big decisions. Whether it’s deciding to bench a star because he’s not having the best game, place a young player in an influential central role, or change the team’s formation half-way through a match because the one it started with isn’t working, it’s these decisions that win games and tournaments. If you don’t have a leader who has the confidence to make them, then you generally don’t win. It’s as simple as that. Of course, a leader who will make big decisions is not the same as a leader who will make the right big decisions. You want a risk-taker, but not a rash one. You need someone who constantly assesses the situation, makes the quick calculations, and acts. If the coach of Germany, Joachim Loew, hadn’t decided to pull the World Cup’s all-time leading goal scorer (Miroslav Klose), and replace him with Mario Gotze, then Germany may not have won that final match. What’s interesting is that Mario Gotze was a starter in the earlier matches of the tournament but didn’t play well, so Loew turned to Klose, who delivered with some big goals. Most would have kept Klose on in those final minutes, but Loew knew he needed a spark and had faith that Gotze would embrace his second chance. It was a huge decision that could have backfired, but he made it nonetheless. That’s what leaders do.