8 Lessons For Modern Leaders From World Cup 2014

My father used to sit me on his knee every Sunday afternoon to watch English Premier League soccer matches. After his untimely passing 2 weeks before my 8th birthday, it was several years before I could re-engage with this beautiful sport without the intense reminder of his physical absence. Then, thanks to Diego Maradona’s superhuman feats in the 1986 FIFA World Cup, I became hooked and it’s been my quadrennial love affair ever since.

In 2010, I began a blogging tradition to find connections between the World Cup and my life’s work as a leadership and innovation catalyst. Interestingly, my 2010 post has stood the test of time and still highlights many of the issues that business and organizational leaders deal with today.

Yesterday, as I watched Germany hoist the World Cup trophy for the first time in 24 years, it struck me just how much the world has changed since 1990. Case in point: the 1990 winning team was West Germany, not the since-unified Germany. How many of us can remember life before a unified Germany or, indeed, before the subsequent explosion of the Internet?

Since 2010, my work too has changed and evolved to help my clients be even more introspective and mindful about how they show up as a leader in this age of increasing complexity and globalization. And so, it is with this more introspective approach that I present my leadership lesson roundup for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, to help you become more thoughtful, influential and innovative:

1. Be “in it to win it, rather than to avoid losing it”. The match commentator uttered this at yesterday’s Germany-Argentina final when both sides began their 30 minutes of extra time after a goal-less 90 minute match. Instead of the typical caution that teams tend to display in later stages of the World Cup, neither Germany nor Argentina held anything back and continued to attack and defend with gusto. The result was a thoroughly enjoyable game for the spectators and (I believe) fewer regrets from the players because they played full out. As modern-day leaders, it can be tempting to play our cards close to the chest and get too caught up in defensive or protectionist measures for our company, industry or country. This can be useful in the short term but, in a world that now expects more candor, collaboration and creativity from its organizations, exuding the spirit of ingenuity and of playing full out will win you more loyal customers in the long term.

2. “We’re in the entertainment business.” This was another off-handed piece of commentary that was made, if memory serves, during the USA-Belgium match when US goalkeeper Tim Howard made 16 heroic and record-breaking saves before they finally succumbed to Belgium’s might. As much as the World Cup is about celebrating the athleticism of its players, it’s just as much about creating an experience that delights its millions of spectators.

Since 1998 when the concept of the experience economy was first coined by Pine and Gilmore, successful organizations understand the importance of delighting their customers with each encounter. And as attention spans continue to shrink and stress levels continue to rise for so many of us, providing a measure of entertainment in your marketing or product/service delivery helps to take the edge off your employees’ or customers’ long and trying days. Fringe benefit: being entertaining takes the edge off your day too – a little humor and light-heartedness goes a long way! 🙂

3. “That would have been considered just a good tackle 20 years ago.” I was struck by this piece of commentary during one of the Group Round matches, when a yellow card was issued swiftly and firmly for what seemed like a minor tackle by an opposing team member. Even the rough-and-tumble sport of soccer is, in some ways, becoming more genteel and humane. Less aggression-at-any-cost, more sportsmanship for the love of the game. Less diving and play-acting to win a referee’s favor, more clean and artful game play. Case in point: the pressure that FIFA faced in this World Cup to punish Uruguayan player Luis Suarez for the shoulder-biting incident.

Whether it’s employees wanting to feel less victimized, or customers wanting to feel more included, your humanity and ability to play a clean game is more critical than ever. Business ethics are no longer just an incidental nice-to-have. Our socially-conscious consumers and stakeholders expect nothing less from us.

4. Pace yourself for the long haul. In the 2014 World Cup, 8 of the last 16 matches went into extra time or the dreaded post-extra-time penalty shoot-out. And the Germany-Argentina final was the third FIFA final in a row that went into extra time. My interpretation? In a playing field where teams are more evenly matched than ever, it simply takes more time to settle the score.

The same is true for many of us who work in mature or crowded industries, where the consumer is king and has a plethora of options to choose from. As consumers become more sophisticated or, in some cases, more cynical, sales and business development conversations are no longer the slam dunk that they used to be. And as industries and financial markets become more regulated, it gets harder for us to ‘game the system’ for short-term benefit. (If you’re in any doubt about the need and hunger for more integrity in business, kindly refer to point 3 above! 🙂 )

The businesses, non-profit organizations and tribes who will prevail are those who are in it for the long haul, and who have both the passion and tenacity to stay in the game for the long haul when courting or servicing a client. What’s the payoff for all this patience, you may ask? Simply, an extraordinarily loyal clientele who loves you for who you are, why you care and why they want to stick with you through thick and thin.

5. Remain gracious in defeat. When the Germans demolished host nation Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals, I couldn’t help but recall the murder, by a member of a Colombian drug cartel, of Colombian player Andrés Escobar after he had scored an own goal in the 1994 World Cup. Brazilians view soccer as a religion. Would their emotions over this humiliating loss get the better of them and, if so, what might those intense emotions lead them to do? I held my breath and prayed for cool heads to prevail.

I was surprised and delighted to witness how Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff responded to the defeat. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, she said, “There is one hallmark and feature about football. It is made of victories and defeats. That’s part and parcel of the game. And being able to overcome defeat I think is the feature and hallmark of a major national team and of a great country.” When asked what she would say to the German chancellor in the face of such a crushing defeat, she replied, “…I will greet Angela Merkel, and I will tell the German Chancellor that, yes, her team did play very well. They are to be congratulated.”

We can all take a lesson from this, on how to remain gracious in defeat, help set the tone for those we lead, and uphold our duties as a host (in our case, to our employees/customers/stakeholders) until the very last game is played.

6. Stay inventive. By now I’m sure you’ve heard, ad nauseam, the repeated call to innovate at work. Allow me, just for a minute, to be playful with this term and what it actually means. Being inventive or innovative doesn’t always entail giant leaps of ingenuity. In fact, it’s often best to begin with baby steps when you innovate. Celebrate those small steps of imagination, and they will eventually lead you to larger and bolder ‘gambles’ in your innovation quest.

Germany instinctively knew this when their global standing began to slip about a decade ago. According to sports analysts, leaders in German football then began a comprehensive and systematic approach to elevate their game. This slow and steady progress has resulted in some of today’s most exciting and inventive plays. No longer predictable in their defense and boring in their attack, the 21st-Century German team is both strategic in their pre-game preparations and spontaneous with their tactical choices on the pitch.

We were also introduced to two rather delightful innovations in the 2014 World Cup. The first was a can of environmentally-friendly ‘vanishing spray’ to help players & the ball stay in place during free kicks. The second was goal-line technology to support officials in their decision-making. The spray was very well-received, and highly-utilized, in this year’s tournament. Just when I assumed, as a spectator, that this established sport wouldn’t be able to benefit from any new inventions, these two (conceptually) simple innovations proved me wrong.

7. Know when to infuse young blood while honoring your legends. For legendary German striker Miroslav Klose, the 2014 World Cup would be the last time he would play for his country on the international stage. Klose has broken just about every record there is and, in that fateful semi-final match against Brazil, he became the top scorer in FIFA World Cup history when he slammed home his 16th goal over 4 World Cups.

During Germany’s 2014 World Cup run, I noticed that Klose was brought on at critical stages of the tournament. Being one of the oldest members on the German team, it made little sense to wear him out by keeping him on the pitch throughout the entire 90-minute (or in some cases, 120-minute) period. And, in their final match against Argentina, he played tirelessly and admirably for the first 88 minutes of the match. As his substitute Mario Götze stepped onto the field, and Klose stepped off, the German supporters in the stadium gave him a thunderous standing ovation.

It was, therefore, a sweet and poignant fact that Götze, Klose’s replacement, was the golden boy who eventually scored Germany’s tournament-clinching goal in the 113th minute. What a beautifully poetic way to declare the renewal of German football might on the global stage!

As a leader, not all our succession planning or ‘who will take over when I retire’ actions will be this incisive. But, I share this 2014 World Cup story to suggest that we can all be more intentional in the way we celebrate the pillars and pioneers of our organizations, and that we can also be as gracious in the way we infuse young blood into our management teams to ensure continuity and long-term success.

8. Know your limits. Finally, on a more personal note…most of my nearly 30 years of World Cup viewing have occurred in the early hours of the morning, except in 2002 when the tournament was held on my home continent of Asia. It used to be easy for me to watch the matches at ungodly hours and then function fairly well at work the next day. And I was blessed to watch most of this year’s matches in Brazil’s timezone.

I’m currently back in Asia and watched the last handful of matches at said ungodly hours. My body, in no uncertain terms, has been feeling the punishing effects of this erratic schedule, and I’ve spent more time than I’d like sleeping off my tiredness!

In this age of globalization, your work and responsibilities will continue to traverse geographies and timezones, and you may regularly find yourself having to be on a conference call at ungodly hours. Although it’s often important to stay on top of deadlines,it’s equally important to remember the value of a good night’s sleep or adequate nutrition and exercise. We’re not machines who are designed to run 24/7. We are human beings who need and want to live a full life that doesn’t just revolve around work commitments. So…please know your limits, listen to your body and find ways to recover from high-adrenaline work projects, ok?

Till my 2018 World Cup roundup…have an inventive career and remember to live well and lead large!

(Image from: buzztrick.com)

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About the author

Maya Mathias

Maya Mathias is a global leadership veteran, with a life and career spanning 3 continents and 5 inspired self-reinventions. She is a peaceful leadership advocate and mentor, bringing her unique blend of East & West to her leadership development and innovation management practice. Maya’s life began with a lower-middle class upbringing in Asia, surrounded by poultry & vegetable farms and the ‘simple life’. She doesn’t forget her humble roots, and her body of work seeks to bring more equality, justice and personal purpose in troubling times. Learn more about Maya here.

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