What can the World Cup Teach Business Leaders about Top Performance?

Messi, Mbappé: a World Cup masterpiece

The recent World Cup final in Qatar: Argentina vs. France was a masterpiece. It was one of the best sporting events of all time.

Argentina dominated the first half and most of the second, until France’s Mbappé suddenly surged off the pitch and equalized with just minutes left. Who could have predicted that the game would suddenly pivot from a crushing defeat to a spectacular comeback, unlike anything we've ever seen before?

This was a game of dramatic reversals. The first 60 minutes felt like a coronation. The next 60 minutes were like holding on to the hood of a speeding car.

Tell anyone who missed it: Argentina won, settling a 3-3 match on penalty kicks.

So, what is the secret of teams capable of pulling off such performances?

A snapshot of soccer team governance

National soccer teams competing in a World Cup function much like a ‘temporary task force’, assembled on an ad hoc basis for a special occasion. They are composed of the best players from their respective nations with the objective of repeatedly delivering exceptional performances. They often have strong personalities, big egos, and a natural inclination to achieve individual over collective success.

As a result, the team captain – usually a high-profile player with a history of individual and team success – will need to use all of his leadership skills to rally his players around a united vision of the game plan (and adjust it if necessary) that will ultimately lead to victory.

To be a successful leader – whether on the soccer field or in business – it is essential to understand how people function and to create an environment that inspires the level of self-confidence they need to perform at their best. A self-confident captain will set the example for his players, who will strive to copy him in playing with the same intensity, desire, and passion.

Insights on leadership drawn from the soccer field

All leaders need foundational skills, such as the ability to clarify and communicate their vision, show courage and determination, give feedback, exercise self-control and inspire confidence.

·      Lead with values and a culture of inclusion and accountability

Culture is what unites a team. It is the way the team operates, which is based on a set of shared values and expectations that are clearly articulated so that there is no room for ambiguity. Culture sets the tone: it defines the appropriate behaviors that get rewarded, and those that get punished.

When a team is aligned around a common goal, it has the ability to build a culture of inclusion and accountability. Each team member – from the most junior to the most senior – has a clearly defined role and is held accountable to others. Also, a team captain with a "growth mindset," [see growth mindset] can see great potential in every player, including those who may not seem physically or technically gifted. With time and effort, all players on the team will be able to learn, grow and improve.

When all players are perfectly aligned, the synergistic effects of teamwork far exceed the sum of individual performances. As a result, players develop a genuine appreciation for each other and are willing to sacrifice their personal interests for the benefit of all.

·      Capitalize on ‘clutch moments’ to build ‘psychological resources’ to meet future challenges

Great leaders rise as the stakes rise. They rally together. In soccer, there are decisive moments that determine whether a team wins or loses. They often occur when something extraordinary happens during the game – someone makes a mistake, a player gets injured, or the game is about to end.

The same applies to business. Extraordinary moments happen, and leaders will need to unite the team around its mission. It might be dealing with the loss of business to a competitor, responding to a product failure, or figuring out how to fill an order from a major customer with insufficient inventory. A great leader knows how to step up and bring people together.

When trouble strikes, great leaders are not focused on themselves or on protecting their interests. Instead, they seize the opportunity and turn it into a ‘psychological resource’ that they can draw upon in the future when facing new challenges. They realize that these special moments will become landmarks in the memory of our ‘future selves’. And the degree of cohesion established will determine whether or not our future selves will feel they can rely on our teammates when new challenges arise.

·      Know your people

More often than not, objectives put pressure on people to exceed their abilities. It is therefore essential for captains to know what makes their players tick to encourage them to step out of their comfort zone and improve. Since every player is different, the exchanges must be personalized based on observations made on and off the field. That way, before a game, the captain will know which players are best left alone, which need a gentle reminder of expectations, and which need more forceful instructions.

After a game, it's important to give feedback. Be upfront, no matter what. Pointing out what's wrong is necessary for players to grow and improve. The ideal ratio of praise to blame, according to HBR, is 5 good points to 1 criticism.

Yet, proper timing is critical. After a player messes up on the play and returns to the sideline, a great captain knows that it is an inappropriate time to criticize. Understanding when and how to empower and motivate through feedback – when a player is most "ready" and "willing" to be coached – is a key leadership skill.

However, that is not enough. As a leader, you must show your team that you truly care about them and want only the best for them. That means connecting with team members and appreciating them as people, not just as team members. You have to listen, empathize and put yourself in their shoes. When you do this, the players – like the employees – will give you their best and go the extra mile for you!

Final thoughts

Just as nations assemble their World Cup teams, companies can draw on their top talent at critical times to create a ‘rapid response team’ to address highly complex or time-sensitive business challenges.

In both cases, the strategy is to raise the organization's performance to its highest level by bringing in top-notch multi-skilled professionals on a priority and interim basis.

All too often, organizations overlook such options by sticking to an overly rigid or conventional approach to people and talent deployment.

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