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Management Lessons from World Cup 2010
Article » Finance
Posted by : thedesk   Jul 16 2010
Football World Cup 2010 threw up interesting management lessons. Like efficient business models, outsourcing, teamwork, winning culture and many more.
There aren’t too many things the whole world agrees upon. There aren’t too many occasions when nations plunge headlong into battles and skirmishes without leaving a trail of grief or blood. There aren’t many things of concurrence among the developed and the developing. There is no religious shrine where the world flocks with such common devout fervour. There is no event in the world that reflects the world vividly and colorfully.

Except football.

Picture Lesson: People can have different tastes. Recognize differences in opinions!

Every four years, the world gets together. No UN, no the climate and energy conferences, not even environment seminars and no anti terrorist forum gets us to come together without duress or prejudice, as the occasion of world cup football does. There’s no stage like the world cup that gives us stories which connect us with lessons of teamwork, planning, strategy, resilience, artistry, heartbreak, aggression and leadership. At 6bridges, we put together a few leadership lessons we think could be gleaned from world cup football 2010!

Teamwork leads to seamless combination

Picture Lesson: Teamwork can help overcome language barriers!

Spain is one of the best examples of how a bunch of talented individuals and great team players can impact the overall performance. Xavi, Villa and Iniesta are world-class players. Around them played people like Pique, Puyol, Busquets and Sergio Ramos – all talented individuals with a quality more critical than talent alone – teamwork. Though Spain missed striker Torres due to his poor form, they made up for it by combining so well that the game was always theirs, even if they didn’t score many goals. Better teamwork enabled good players to appear great alongside a few brilliant individuals.

When they played together, the aim was to deliver that perfect pass, that selfless cross from the wings or the measured ball that cut a rival defence into half. To do that, the players needed to play at a level that reflected understanding at a subconscious, instinctive level. The effect of good teamwork was evident against a more fluent side like Germany where they kept the ball to themselves through a thoroughbred team game.

The abilities of people in a team in office have to complement each other, just as it is important for a team on the football field to combine well to succeed. Therefore it is important to identify individuals who can be a part of a team early on. Teamwork is a culture that reflects the vision of a leader who encourages it. The ability to inculcate a high rate of teamwork in individuals is a measure of a leader’s capacity to drive players towards collective organizational goals.

Motivation is the best driver

Picture Lesson: Motivation can come from any quarter. For some, it can even come from those ear-missiles called vuvuzelas!

How do you have committed individuals work as a team?

The Dutch team, ugly ducklings at the game but motivated to the core, had a team spirit that was their strength – a far cry from the characteristic fragility in past teams that lent itself to squabbles and was usually dismantled by its inner contradictions. Dutch players have been famous for elephantine egos that have led to many a downfall. This time, the manager Bert van Marwijk worked as a quiet leader, striking down negative energy by addressing the enigmatic temperaments of people like Robin van Persie by addressing issues individually in the dressing room and laying down performance standards that were reflected by the likes of Sneijder and Robben. Someone like Van Bommel, the captain played a lead hand in building motivation among players by displaying a high sense of commitment and motivation in his nasty and hideous yet highly motivated performances.

Picture Lesson: If you're highly motivated, you can even impart kung-fu lessons, on behalf of your team, in between a game of football

There is the example of Uruguay, whose forward Suarez sacrificed his place and reputation to earn his team a semifinal place by handling the ball on the goal-line against Ghana. It was unsporting and perhaps not the best of examples, but then life offers choices that are grey and not entirely in black or white. Suarez’s choice was the kind we need to make sometimes at work. He made a choice. In his defence, it can be said that he did what he could – within the rules and was thus suspended for a match for the offence. What history will remember though is that Uruguay finished 4th! Uruguay had a bunch of very motivated individuals who fought for each other. When Diego Forlan, their only world class star, was asked if he was the lynchpin of the team, he replied that everyone else was equally good.

Nurture your team

Picture Lesson: Nurturing can include a tough induction exercise in good organizations!

Having put together a team of dedicated individuals, it is important to nurture the workforce and practice. This is critical because no matter how good an understanding you might want to have, a well-oiled machinery vis a vis a well-intentioned but rusty machinery shows its mettle. Take a look at teams like Germany, Argentina, Spain and even Brazil, although a few of them crashed out early. The fluidity and clinical efficiency of these teams give us pictures of cohesive units whose communication with the coaching staff were of a high standard and resulted in consistent performances.

At the workplace too, it’s important to establish work practices that hone individual skills and encourage teamwork. Therefore, when there is a crunch situation where a top drawer performance is needed, the team is well prepared enough to do so. A leader must think forward and thus, nurture and prepare his team.

A canny leader exploits opportunities

Picture Lesson: Maicon smelt an opportunity and ripped the door open!

As a manager of a team, there has to be an instinct for sensing opportunities and then exploiting them with the resources at disposal. Take the example of the semi final match between Germany and Spain. Everyone had been expecting speedy Germany to steamroll Spain. Der Mannschift was on such an unstoppable run on the autobahn! And then what happened?

Del Bosque, the Spanish coach realized he had speedy attackers such as Jesus Navas and Pedro. He knew most German attacks would build through German defender Philip Lahm on the left flank. Del Bosque unleashed Pedro’s runs down the German flank and Lahm remained tied to a defensive role, thus cutting down his ability to supply passes to the marauding German forwards! The German barrage had thus been neutralized.

In the office, there may be opportunities for the firm that a leader has to spot early on. As a canny navigator, he has to then use his resources to exploit the opportunity. For that to happen, a leader must know what strengths his team has or the skill-sets that can be called upon at an opportune time. He must know who the right man for a job is and employ skills accordingly.

Good leaders build resilience in his teammates

Picture Lesson: Without resilience, not even a call to the heavens can help!

People like Carlos Dunga have always exhibited nerves of steel as a player and as a coach. Yet, when a crunch time arrived against a Netherlands team that was bent on kicking the man rather than the ball, and to top it all, went into the lead against Brazil with barely half an hour to go, the cookie crumbled for the Brazilians. Rarely before had they been in this situation where the opponents were playing scrappy, ugly, hostile soccer and were yet winning it.

The Brazilian players got provoked and began playing the Dutch brand of soccer, thereby losing the battle of the minds. The result: Felipe Melo got a red card and Brazil had to fight back with a man short and a goal behind against a very physical team that had more fouls in the match than soccer moves! The writing began to appear much before the referee blew the final whistle. The Dutch won.

Similarly, Nigerian midfielder Sani Kaita’s unforgivable stomp on a Greek forward earned him a red card and switched the momentum against the African team, which went on to lose the match and bow out.

How do you build resilience amongst team members?
There are times when the going is tough and this could cause heartburning and bickering amongst team members. A crisis can be allowed to affect the overall performance of a team, if the team is not prepared for it. Addressing a crisis through knowledge sharing, information dissemination and accessibility will help teams cope better in a crisis.

Depth in Resources helps Flexibility in planning

Picture Lesson: There is a flexibility - You can start playing taekwondo against opponents if football gets too boring!

The World Cup highights the need for a leader to be tactically astute and employ an alternative plan where needed. For instance, after two disappointing draws with Algeria and the USA, England’s manager switched the ineffective Emile Heskey for Jermaine Defoe, and it worked. England won that game 1-0 and qualified for the next round. However, the team had too many holes to plug. There wasn’t enough depth in the team, though the coach did make changes. The effect was a team left without too many alternatives and no plan B. Mercifully; they were thrown out by Germany. Flexibility in decision-making is key but so is depth in resources, and without both, a team will only reveal more weaknesses.

Germany too, played at top gear throughout and did not have a plan B when Spain slowed down the pace in the semi finals. No plan B for the Germans meant that a talented team had to exit in the semis. Brazil had no answer to a changed situation in the quarter finals against the Dutch. When the going is good, a team may look good, but flexibility is the key to adjust to changing situations. A manager must always have a Plan B in a state that he can employ. The key for a leader is to employ plan B before the crisis hits the ceiling. That Plan B, a leader must ensure is as good as the original plan, for it to succeed.

Think globally in a global world

Picture Lesson: Take the good points of globalization! Looks like the French perhaps based a pre-world cup camp in India!

Years ago, countries could be segregated by the colour of their skin, their beliefs or their religion. As the world progressed and matured, so did soccer as a global phenomenon and management as a practice. Competence and quality now have transcended nations and geographical assumptions. This German team had players from 9 nationalities. The names – Cacau, Khadira, Podolski, Klose, Boateng do not sound German. But then today, what is German? It stands for ruthless efficiency combined with artful soccer. A blend of the best styles from everywhere.

One look at the coaches will tell you that many nations hire coaches from other places, if they feel that serves them best. Australia had Verweek, a Dutch coach, the English had Capello, an Italian, Ghana had Milovan Rajevac and so on. The idea was to scout for the right coach that suits the style and temper of a team.

Organizations today look to maximize their performances and reach. The involvement of specialists in the form of outsourced work serves as the best example of optimizing overall performance by using the best resources available. Using external services that satisfy an organization’s requirements makes for smart business sense. A business leader needs to locate this need and then have the right people to work on it.

Have an efficient business model with emphasis on employee development

The Bundesliga generates £500 million a year less than the Premier League, but it is a better and more efficient business model. Last year its 18 clubs made a combined operating profit of £66 million more than the 20 clubs in the Premier League, and, most significantly, it invests £20 million more each year in its youth academy system. There is also the case of investment in the youth. The average age of the German squad in South Africa was just 25 – compared to 28.7 of the England squad. Most of the German players had more exposure playing with each other and thus knew each other.

Germany encourages local players in the Bundesliga. While the Bundesliga has two fewer teams than the Premier League, it has a larger number of local players – 267 German players compared with 221 English in the Premier League. Sixty-six per cent of the players in the Premier League are foreigners, compared with 47 per cent of the players in the Bundesliga. German clubs must pick 12 home-grown players in their squads, compared to the eight in the Premier League.

A leader must know which a more efficient business model is over a specific time period. He must know what shapes outcomes of quality and performance delivery. Efficiencies can be obtained by investing money and effort in training when necessary. Organic capacity building can help managers prepare teams for ongoing and future challenges much better.

A strong leadership culture shapes outcomes

The leadership culture in a team shapes its outcome. Whether in the boardroom or in the locker room success is a sum of talents of individuals and the context surrounding them.

Ghana has developed a sound soccer infrastructure in much the same way it has conducted democratic presidential elections and stable transfers of power. Nigeria, Africa's most populous country with 140 million people, has been an unstable volatile country that has never delivered.

"Ghana does everything better than Nigeria" in terms of soccer, says Steve Bloomfield, author of the recent book "Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa." Ghana, Mr. Bloomfield says, runs a better local league, a better soccer federation and enjoys less political interference than Nigeria. Ghana last year won the Under-20 soccer world championships. At the world cup, it was the only African team in the quarter finals where it was unlucky to lose.

Nigeria, by contrast, has become a model for a failed system. It reflects in the indiscipline that reigns the game. The corruption and indiscipline of the governments there have meant that the teams from that country, despite the talents, haven’t the will and heart to go far. After they lost, their President threatened to ban the team. It’s a sad reflection of how a country’s system can ruin the development of individual players and soccer.

In an organization, a leader must ensure a culture of excellence and sincerity that must flow from the top. Setting an example and creating a culture of ownership, accountability and trust is important for an organization to work without friction and disruptions.

Recruit members with the potential to last longer

Picture Lesson: Its a rough world. You cannot afford to stay off the field for long!

The Nigerian campaign was in disarray much before the tournament had even began. While Nigeria hired Swede Lars Lagerback three months before the World Cup. Ghana has had the same coach, Serbian Milovan Rajevac, for the past three years. Dunga, who had been around for a while and Del Bosque of Spain who has spent much time with the team, had made themselves aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their teams. The result was a smooth transition to their unique styles of leadership.

In an organization, a leader must know the kind of junior leaders he has to delegate decisions to, in order to maintain a cohesive unit. If the leaders reporting to him haven’t spent much time with the organization, they must be encouraged to spend more time knowing the people. Longevity of employees also helps a team settle into a groove and counter attrition better. A leader must look at recruiting employees who have the potential and professional need to work longer in his team.

Nothing succeeds like hunger to succeed

Picture Lesson: A man without hunger eats grass!

Honduras made it to the World Cup; and this Central American country has a total population of barely 8 million, which is a few more than Bangalore. New Zealand has a similar story. Yet Honduras and New Zealand were in South Africa while India sat before its million TV sets!

Small countries have shown the hunger to succeed. A leader must ensure there is hunger when pursuing a goal. When recruiting people, it is good to pick people with the extra hunger content. If the motivation comes from within, it helps a work environment and organizational culture. Professional hunger helps create positive energy around everyone that can translate into good collective performance.

The lessons for leaders: A leader must provide resources, direction and support that build the confidence of members in a team, and augment a culture of hunger for excellence throughout the system.

Be a Good Crisis Manager

Picture Lesson: A leader who rises to the need of the hour is your crisis manager!

France was an example of how extreme individualism and mismanagement can explode in your face. There was no camaraderie, no team work and no regard for the reputation of their team or their country. The inner skirmishes were brought out into the open and the coach Raymond Domenech, who should have been able to soothe tempers and calm frayed nerves, chose to blow it all up by mismanaging the entire affair.

There can be errant people in a team, but it is also how they are handled by the manager or leader, that reflects upon a team’s fortunes. As a coach, Domenech should not have passed the buck, and by refusing to shake hands with a rival coach after a match, he was certainly not setting high standards of decorum as a leader. Contrast this with the Dutch coach Marwijk’s handling of the episode involving Robin van Persie. The off colour van Persie was substituted in a match and the temperamental Dutch forward immediately began to argue with the coach in public. Marwijk kept his cool and with able composure, listened to van Persie and played down the incident.

Instead of getting drawn into a negative corner, Marwijk held up the indisputably brilliant performances of Sneijder in the tournament as an example and asked everyone in the team to reach those standards. Marwijk didn’t criticize anyone publicly but van Persie realized he wasn’t meeting those standards and so kept quiet thereafter. Before the final, Marwijk rolled down another ace before the final. He said the finals would be the game van Persie would fire. The result: van Persie was all praise for the coach and swore to give his best for him.

A leader has to have patience to manage erratic people who he feels can deliver. It is his ability to turn the negative into a positive that can boost his team’s overall performance. At the same time, a leader has to be seen as tough and uncompromising as far as values are concerned. Carlos Dunga’s efficient methods may not have found universal acclaim among purists, but his sincerity of purpose and leadership qualities ensured that individual ball players like Robinho too respected his tactics.

Hype can never match performance (Underpromise but Overdeliver)

Picture Lesson: Rooney promised a goal! He delivered it without the ball in it!

England was the best example of a huge promise gone undelivered! The team was overrated from the start and as a result, the stars – Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney were under too much pressure to perform. Of course it wasn’t Capello’s fault that they were overtly hyped; it was the media that pasted their bios across front pages most days.

But the lesson here is that a leader must ensure that members in his team do not overpromise and then renege on delivery. This is the single biggest roadblock in a good team. Hype can bring down performance and cause frustration since the individual abilities may have been overrated to begin with.

Keep a mix of experience and youth

Picture Lesson: For Germany, even their coach could leap and run faster than other coaches. But then they needed a Ballack-like calm figure to add to their firepower!

The Germans had a lot of youth but the experience of Michael Ballack was severely missed, especially so against the Spanish in the semifinals. Xavi and Iniesta ruled the midfield and Sami Khedeira, so promising in other matches just couldn’t provide the support to Schweinsteiger, in a manner Michael Ballack could have done. Imagine the onslaught and power of the German midfield with Ballack, Schweinsteiger leading them.

On the other hand, the Italians were so old that they could probably have been given a senior citizen’s seat in a BEST bus! They were tired, ineffective and carried on due to past reputations. In an organization, a leader or a manager has to find the right combination of youth and experience. He has to pick the right man for the right job – and this can be done once he’s aware of the potential and capacity of his teammates.


These are everyday management lessons that we have heard of before, yet remain those that we yearn to see time and again on a football field. Lessons that remind us that leadership and management lessons aren’t very different in an interconnected, globalized world. Lessons that remind us that football, like leadership and wars are the most common features of this planet.

The lessons from this world cup is about managing one’s resources, capabilities, temperament, competition and being focused towards the goal. Football kept our spirits rolling for a month, it is time to pull up our socks, wear our management shoes and kick up lessons that can be more easily mastered than the Jabulani ball. Ask Diego Forlan!