Monday, 2 July 2018

Leadership Lessons from the World Cup

A flurry of social media posts described the “curse of world champions” after the reigning football champions Germany went out of the 2018 FIFA World Cup at the group stage. Since the finals in 2006, every world champion has failed in the group stage at the next World Cup. Italy, Spain and now Germany. As defending champions, France also fell at the first hurdle in 2002. Each nation fielded similar teams to the ones that had won four years before.

There may be a reason for this pattern other than a "curse". A reason to be found in our typical reactions to success, whether achieved by an individual, team or company. A reason that explains how leadership lessons can also be taken from the transformation of the England team at this year’s tournament.

Like politics, a week is a long time in football. So four years between World Cups is like an eternity. Players age, slow down, pick up injuries, and can lose form. And whether they are successful individually depends on whether a tactical system is suited to their strengths. Not only do those strengths change as they age, but those tactical systems should change as the opposition work you out.

In management studies, we look at why it is typical for successful organizations to fail. If we look at the top of the stock market, almost 100 were not in the S&P top 500 at the start of the last World Cup. That means about a fifth of the world’s largest companies have fallen out of the top ranking. Success can breed failure when people become fixed into routines while the context changes, due to inevitable changes in technology, markets and regulations. Leadership is often expected to come entirely from the successful professionals who have risen to the top, and whom are allied to the those existing routines. Instead, fast changing contexts call for work cultures that encourage initiative from across the organisation – something now dubbed “collective leadership.” 

As both an Englishman and a Professor of Leadership, I’m appreciating the England team’s approach to collective leadership, which is in sharp contrast to the failures of defending champions. The England team failed to achieve success in major tournaments since 1966. Their last run to the semi-final of the World Cup was 28 years ago. In the 2018 tournament they won their first two games for only third time in their history and did so with a lively pattern of play. For once, it was fun to watch. 

Experts point out that the team does not have better players than in the past. So what is different? Under the manager Gareth Southgate, the narrative about leadership has changed. Which doesn’t just mean the focus on the captain, but the shift to an emphasis on system, team and squad, rather than on the famous players. 

In the past, England always went into tournaments with a drama about the recovery from injury of a ‘top’ player, which then disrupted preparations and meant some players were half fit during a tournament. The role of captain was made so paramount that the manager almost always had to play the established captain, even when they were not suited to a tactical formation, or no longer the best player in their favoured position. England also kept playing its star players well beyond their best years - a parallel to what happened with the exiting world champions. 

This culture has been encouraged by the sports media, who always single out individuals after a match. It is far easier to tell the public that the key to a performance was whether a star player did something good or not, rather than explain tactics. It is commonplace for journalists to speak about the ‘talisman’ of a team – a phrase that literally implies magical powers of a special individual. It is a problem when football managers begin to believe these stories of magical powers, by openly describing a player as an automatic choice.  

This situation parallels what organisational psychologists have discovered since experiments in the 1980s. They found that whether or not there is any evidence for the view, the majority of people think that any outcome that is below or above average is more a result of the boss than other factors such as market conditions. They concluded that we have a romantic idea of the importance of a leader, and that this idea restricts our ability to act collectively for our common interest. 

Gareth Southgate broke this thought pattern. Immediately he downplayed the importance of the captaincy and rotated it. "We have this thing about 'an England captain', but really the captain is the person that is captain in the next game, isn't it?” the England manager explained. "Always the danger in any sport with naming a 'captain' is selection. Always there is a danger with form or anything else that it becomes a matter of debate." He said “you need leaders everywhere” and described the importance of a leadership group within the squad. 

How do you achieve that? In the leadership courses I teach, we focus on how to create leaderful groups, where anyone of any rank can step up in a moment to help the group achieve a meaningful objective. It is a philosophy of collective leadership which made me notice the shift in the England set up. Last year the squad were taken to see the Marines and camped out in a forest and undertook activities aimed at team building. "That would never have happened back in the day…” said Jermain Defoe, the striker who played for a few England managers. “We did not have our phones. I did things that I never thought I would do. There were times when I felt a little bit scared doing it, but you have to because your team-mates are pushing you on and it's all about building that trust.” 

During the World Cup, Southgate has been invited to succumb to the magical idea of the talismanic leaders who will save a team. After the win against Tunisia he was asked to single out players for praise. In reply, he said the result was due to the effort of the whole squad. He often mentions how football is a squad game – even widening the idea that it is a team game.

This approach to collective leadership and dropping the myth of talismanic players has reduced the risk that a loss of form or an injury would disrupt performances. It has avoided systems of play being chosen because of one or two ‘talismen’ who have been mythologised. The new approach has been noticed by some sports journalists as ditching the era of “Mr Big Stuff”. 

Ultimately, success in sport, as in business, depends as much on talent, luck and the competition as it does on a philosophy of management or leadership. But the lesson from the failure of past World Champions and the transformation of England this year is that our attitudes to leadership do matter.  

Professor Jem Bendell, Founder, IFLAS. 

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