Leadership Lessons from the World Cup

on July 10, 2018

Football, bloody hell.

Somebody pinch me. For the first time since 1990, England is possibly only two games away from an unlikely World Cup win. For my American friends, you should understand: England may have invented the game of football (your soccer), but we are perennial underachievers – renowned for celebrity and bloated egos outweighing performance, for wobbly knees over composure at the most crucial moments.

And this team isn’t all that good on paper, lacking the star names that attract the lion’s share of media coverage. There’s no English version of Ronaldo, Messi, or Neymar (all dumped out of the tournament early, by the way) and led by a manager, Gareth Southgate, who was only parachuted into the role as a “caretaker manager” 10 months ago because the previous manager was caught in a newspaper sting using his status for personal gain. Fast forward to today and Southgate has become an unlikely fashion icon, with waistcoat/vest sales spiking on English High Streets, and the hashtag #garethsouthgatewould has taken over the internet.

While it’s the England players who have carved out the results, most fans and journalists can point to the transformational effect of Southgate’s leadership.

Southgate took over an uninspiring team nearing the end of their World Cup qualification campaign in October. And while the team was unbeaten throughout the qualifiers, their dour play had driven away fans by droves, and those who did still come to watch games were more entertained firing paper airplanes onto the pitch than watching England qualify for the World Cup (to be fair, this one was particularly good). After maybe two decades of underperformance, a “Golden Generation” has been and gone without so much as a whimper, and the relationship between the team and fans was at its lowest ebb in history. No one gave Southgate much of a chance leading England at the World Cup. Nice bloke, but how could he possibly succeed where high-caliber international managers such as Capello, Erickson, and Hodgson had all failed? It seemed like a poison chalice.

Well, he has made mugs of thousands of armchair pundits, and however the final games of this crazy World Cup end up, he will be welcomed home as a hero – the man who revitalized a stale and listless England team. So how did he do it? It’s a fascinating study of leadership lessons that are directly transferable to the corporate landscape. Here are my top five:

1. He has fostered a culture of vulnerability. Southgate has broken the mold and displayed one of the most valuable yet underrated leadership skills there is: vulnerability. In the corporate landscape, vulnerability is often perceived as weakness – but in our experience, it’s a skill of the most accomplished leaders. Liam Rosenior – himself a professional football player, writes in The Guardian: “Vulnerability is often viewed as a negative, especially in the competitive world of elite sport, but at times it can also be a huge strength which has the potential to maximize togetherness and team spirit. This is something so easy to see from the outside when these England players are constantly encouraging each other and admitting how much they rely on each other on and off the field.”

Southgate’s lesson has spread throughout the team, who’ve opened up with the media on subjects as sensitive as racism, depression, and family issues. That, in turn, has developed a stronger bond between the press, the public, and the team. Wherever you are in the world, I’m sure you know how brutal the British press can be, and the value of getting the press on board as advocates rather than detractors is invaluable for the team.

2. He’s connecting his players to something bigger than themselves. This England team is young and diverse, and it hasn’t been lost on Southgate the power of the collective to make a difference beyond the football world. “We’re a team with our diversity and youth that represents modern England, and in England we’ve spent a bit of time being lost as to what our modern identity is, and I think as a team we represent that modern identity and hopefully people can connect with us,” Southgate said. In a Brexit world with nationalistic undertones running high, this attitude and approach have breathed life into a multicultural Britain. Southgate added, “We have a chance to affect something bigger than ourselves.”

3. He’s given meticulous attention to mindset and skill set. England’s record in big tournament penalty shootouts is awful. Prior to this tournament, England had been involved in seven shootouts, and won only one – the worst record of any of the teams playing in this World Cup. “England just isn’t very good at penalties” or “It’s a lottery” have been the most common refrains from press and personnel – even from past managers. The last time England was in a major semifinal (Euro 96) it was Southgate himself who missed the crucial penalty. That seems to have left an indelible mark on him as he masterminded England’s first tournament penalty shootout win in 22 years at this World Cup.Southgate believes it isn’t a game of Russian roulette, but something far more scientific. I’ve had a couple of decades thinking it through,” Southgate said. “It’s not about luck. It’s not about chance. It’s about performing a skill under pressure. There are things you can work on, things that can be helpful for the preparation for the players. We have studied it. There is a lot we can do to own the process, and not be controlled by it.”

I love the idea of “owning the process” – it’s such a strong term. In part, that meant practicing the skill and process of penalty taking repetitively, but more significantly, the team worked hard on the mental aspect of taking penalties under pressure. For instance, I was surprised to find out that in previous tournaments, England had the fastest reaction times between the referee blowing his whistle and the player taking the kick, just 0.28 seconds – a clear sign of nerves. Against Columbia, it was notable each English penalty taker paused for at least a second or two after the referee had blown his whistle. It’s telling that the fastest reaction time came from the last Columbian penalty taker, who had his penalty saved. Mindset is so often overlooked in business when, in reality, it shapes success so frequently.

4. He’s a divergent thinker. Through thorough research of the top performing teams of recent years (Germany and Spain in particular), Southgate and his coaching team had identified set piece plays as an important area of focus for this World Cup tournament. But where they went for inspiration was the NFL. Southgate and his assistant studied both the defensive and offensive set plays of the Seattle Seahawks to inspire their blueprint for the England team. As it stands, England has now scored more goals from dead ball situations than any other team, so it’s fair to say this divergent thinking has paid off handsomely. Just think about how hard it is to do the same sort of thing within the corporate landscape – to think outside of your lane, your company, and your industry to identify processes, products, and services that could provide your organization with a competitive advantage.

5. He believes in the power of the collective over the individual. Perhaps this is the trait that most corporate leaders intuitively understand the most – a high-functioning team of mid-performers will tend to outperform a collective of disconnected high-performers. Yet putting the philosophy into practice isn’t always that easy. For years, England struggled when, on paper, they had a hugely impressive group of individuals – Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes, Beckham, Rooney, Ferdinand, Terry, etc. – all Champions League winners for their respective club teams, and labelled a “Golden Generation.” Yet they achieved very little together.Now that those players have mostly retired, it’s interesting to hear their insight as TV pundits. Behind the scenes, there were divisive cliques drawn on club affiliation lines. They wouldn’t even talk to one another off the pitch, or sit next to one another at mealtimes. Is it any wonder they never gelled as a team? In a corporate landscape, we would refer to this as silos. You can have pockets of high-performing teams, but if they don’t communicate or collaborate well outside of their silo, it damages collective performance.

Southgate has worked hard to create a spirit of togetherness, and it’s clear that this group of young players enjoy each other’s company, regardless of club. If you asked England’s competitors who they would prefer to play – England’s star-studded dysfunctional teams of the past, or this ego-less collective – they would almost certainly choose the former. Luka Modric, the talismanic figure for Croatia (who England will play in the semifinal) put it, “They are looking strong as a team. I don’t know if there is a different mentality but it seems that they are more like a team. They have this togetherness that is very important to have success.”

Who wouldn’t love Gareth Southgate as their leader, their CEO? A man who has inspired and mobilized a whole nation to rally behind this England team. If Southgate were to run for prime minister tomorrow I would bet my house he would win – one can only dream!

So, the question for you is: Can you be a divergent thinker like Southgate, and apply the lessons of this England team within your company? No one would ever say these are easy, and they are likely to take time – but the rewards are astronomical.

 

Semifinal prediction: England 3, Croatia 1.

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