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Another World Cup, a familiar set of lessons

It’s time again to dissect what just happened at the FIFA World Cup, and see what we can learn for our own lives.

Regular readers of this column will know that this is something I do every four years. In 2010 I wrote that to win in football (or any collective, team-based endeavour), four ingredients are necessary: first, a great ethos and shared sense of purpose; second, a “groove” – a familiar and competent system of play (no matter what it is); third, some outstanding talent in key places; and lastly, great leadership, on and off the playing arena.

The teams that arrive at and depart from every World Cup tournament, and those that go far and ultimately win, have much to teach students of management, strategy and leadership. So what did we learn this time?

This was certainly the tournament of surprises. Big names fell unexpectedly early; smaller teams punched above their weight; and there were many nail-biting final moments. As an entertainment spectacle, the World Cup delivered in buckets.

Trophy-holders Germany fell at the first hurdle. After wowing everyone at the 2014 tournament, they exited ignominiously in the first round, actually finishing bottom of their group. That was not a predictable outcome, but if you apply my four-factors framework, you can see where the Germans went wrong.

Germany invests much time and money in the necessary infrastructure and coaching that throws up great teams, and so there is rarely a shortage of talent in its national sides. But this time, their team spirit was strangely lacking – no one seemed to be playing for the badge and the group. With the retirement of former captain Philipp Lahm and dominant midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, a leadership lacuna seemed to have appeared. And the trademark fast-moving style of play was also insipid this time.

Other much-fancied favourites, Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Portugal also suffered early exits. A key lesson is apparent: don’t rest on your laurels. Yesterday’s success is not tomorrow’s. Even if you have my four ingredients in abundance, you have to keep refreshing and reimagining them. Humiliation awaits the complacent.

African nations all left the tourney in the first round. A sole quarter-final berth decades ago is Africa’s greatest achievement on the world stage. As I keep writing every four years, having just one of the critical ingredients – talent – does not cut it. Until we invest in creating actual teams – which are led properly, play collectively, and develop a distinctive, familiar and effective style of play – we will continue to just show up and check out empty-handed. We will continue to supply footballers to the world – not football.

And the winners?

France were the most consistent team in the tournament. They had (immigrant) talent in abundance (mostly of African origin) but they also had the other factors in play: leadership, team spirit and a set style of play. So much so that they overcame brave Croatia, punching above its weight, in the final. The winners did not play the most attractive football, but they knew what they were doing, and did it consistently.

A further lesson: we focus too much on key individuals. The world’s “wow” players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr, Mohamed Salah – could do nothing for their faltering teams. Kylian Mbappé was a revelation and the new sensation – but he was not the reason France lifted the trophy. Top talent only flowers when it has supporting talents alongside it, and is part of a system of play that everyone follows. It has always been thus – even though the extreme talents get all the headlines.

So ask yourself this, as you consider your own organisation: do you possess the four key drivers of organisational success? Is your ethos strong enough – do your people have a collective higher cause that gives them great energy and oomph, and the resilience to weather reversals of fortune? Do you have your “groove” – an established strategy, tried-and-tested systems, standards you don’t breach – or are you always fiddling and following fads? Do you have sufficient talent on board – is there a core group of employees who are amongst the best in your industry, and do they work well with other team members? And finally, look at the leadership: are there leaders present who can show the way, get the best out of others and set a vibrant example?

Because that’s what it takes to hit the heights.

(Sunday Nation, 22 July 2018)

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