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Leadership Lessons from the 2010 World Cup

CEIBS Visiting Professor of Management Shalom S. Saar advises business managers to look to the world’s elite football teams for examples of excellent– and not so excellent – coaching.

Published: Sep 1, 2010 06:06:09 AM IST
Updated: Aug 31, 2010 02:57:42 PM IST

With the high-pitched, insect-like drone of the air-horns from South Africa’s football fans ringing in our ears, and our sleeping patterns seriously disrupted by a series of matches starting at 2:30 AM Asian time, many China-based World Cup fans suffered in June and July. During those weeks, it was easy to spot the puffy-eyed football aficionados struggling through the work week.

It all culminated on July 11, at nearly 5 AM China time, when Spain grabbed its first-ever World Cup victory. After 116 minutes of play, and despite the uber-physical Dutch team receiving a record 14 yellow cards and one red, Spain’s #6 Andreas Iniesta executed a goal which brought the score to 0:1. Here in Shanghai, as the sun brightened the sky in the neighbourhood surrounding the CEIBS campus, scores of red-and-yellow clad Spanish fans marched jubilantly out of the sports bars chanting “Oye, oye, oye” and shaking hands with the disappointed orange-shirted fans.

As the passion and pride of the 2010 World Cup fade away, there are lessons to learn even as we head back to work or study. Professor Shalom S. Saar, who teaches at MIT and CEIBS, says a close look at the tournament's key coaches offers valuable lessons in leadership for any team – in the sports arena or in the business arena. Read on for Prof Saar's leadership lessons from the 2010 World Cup.

Winners’ Mindset for Coaches, Teams 
“In the World Cup, we are talking about very competent players on any national team. So the question is: which differentiating elements are success factors? I believe it comes down to three areas:
First, and most important, is the emotional maturity, the level of competency and the conviction of the coach. There is no such thing as a good team or a bad team. There is only a good coach, a bad coach, or a tired coach.
The second success factor is the maturity level of the team. By maturity, I mean the level of competency, the level of emotional intelligence of the team, and the ability to focus on a common goal.
Third is the role of luck, in sports and business alike.”

What Not to Do: Follow ‘Les Bleus’
“From my point of view, the 2010 World Cup team with the lowest maturity level and the poorest coaching skill, as well as bad luck, was the French team.
For a coach to be truly successful, he or she needs more than exceptional technical skills and expertise.  He also needs qualities such as empathy, sensitivity, and caring. A team can accept a coach who sometimes loses his temper if that is offset by other human qualities. Unfortunately, this did not happen with the French team, when the coach resorted to negative one-way communication to a point where the players refused to go to training. [A widely publicized dressing room argument during the June 17 match, in which the French lost to Mexico 0:2, resulted in the striker Nicolas Anelka being expelled from the tournament for cursing coach Raymond Domenech, and refusing to apologize. Following this, the French team staged a reported “full-scale revolt” and protested Anelk’s dismissal by refusing to train.]

A strong team could have had an honest dialogue instead of resorting to passive aggressive behaviour, culminating in going on-strike. Neither the team captain nor any other team member approached the coach to suggest: ‘Let’s calm down, stop blaming, and find out why we lost.’ If a coach relies solely on command and control and is non-empathetic to the needs of the team, the likelihood for success is low.

Coach Domenech could have used more empathy and emotional maturity in dealing with his team. This example applies to business as well. A balanced business leader can mobilize team members. Furthermore, a mature team can support each other to compensate for the skills lacking in the leader. Business is a game. A high performance team needs a competent and compassionate leader. On the other hand, the leader’s job becomes more feasible if the team is committed to the mission, goals, and to each other.
Both Yin and Yang
“A team with a very intimidating coach, or boss, will be afraid to approach him because of negative consequences. But teams with a very ‘soft skills’ style of boss will not respect him. Either way – too hard or too soft – the coach is ineffective.”
A great football coach, for example, obviously must know the sport. But in sports, as in business, we often underestimate the human factor, which is what really mobilizes people. A great coach is extremely perceptive, knowing professional and personal issues impacting each player. A great coach adapts his style to the needs of each player, while keeping his eye on the ball.

As a coach, you must win the respect of your team, demonstrating your integrity. Next, articulate a clear vision of victory, and coach the team individually and collectively to achieve and exceed the established target. Winning your team over, one by one, being sensitive and adapting to their personalities, is crucial. Sun Tzu declared that the leader must be like water, adapting to the terrain. As a coach, you must use different management styles in your “toolbox” – sometimes instructing and demanding, sometimes supporting, and sometimes delegating. But even when commanding, you can do this with respect so that he or she does not lose morale.”
Look to ‘El Trio’
“One of the most inspiring teams in the World Cup this year was the Mexican team. I was very touched by the coach, Javier Aguirre. He showed expertise in bringing the team together, and was relentless in his efforts to understand and motivate them. The coach personally recruited each team member and spent a great deal of time listening to them, encouraging them and training them to play as an integrated team.  This football coach offers a lesson for business leaders. One critical success factor for any business team is to spend time together before performing under stress. This develops the human connection and commitment of the team, the ability to trust and support one another. Remember: in most cases, it is the soft skills of the team that make the hard skills go.

And in Today's China?
“The need to be a flexible leader, using both hard and soft skills, is very relevant in China today. The young work force cannot relate to the Cultural Revolution, the severe poverty, and to the idea of equality of the state-controlled economic system. Instead, soft skills appeal to them, and they are unlikely to be mobilized by a leader who relies solely on command and control.

The bottom line is this:  If you lead by only using one coaching approach, you won’t be accepted. For instance, if you are too hard, the team will lose morale and people will leave. If you are too soft, you won’t be respected. Therefore, successful business leaders today in China, or anywhere else, need both Yin and Yang. The leader must be focused on the goal, but also sensitive and caring for each member of the team. This will unleash the full potential of the team to achieve victory.

[Reprinted with permission from The China Europe International Business School.]

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  • Professor M.S.Rao


    on Sep 6, 2011