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Executive Assessment

Leadership Lessons from the World Cup

  • January 2023

Every four years I am hopeful that Brazil will win the World Cup, yet our neighbors from Argentina earned the title. But there’s something we can all bring home from the championship: invaluable leadership lessons. In any high-pressure situation where the stakes are high, it takes more than skill to succeed. Navigating complex challenges requires self-reflection, adaptation, and the ability to connect with and relate to others. The Argentinian team may have mastered these skills, but not before losing the first match and reassessing its strategy before each match. As the competition unfolded, we also witnessed the triumphs and failures of other teams in the tournament. In this article, I dive into some of them and discuss the lessons we can draw. 

1. Understand Your Motivations

Prior to rising to the World Cup field, there’s an arduous journey to qualify a national team. For athletes with dual nationality, the question is: which national team to choose? Netflix series "Captains" sheds light on that reality by depicting the journey of six countries (Brazil, Croatia, Jamaica, Gabon, Lebanon, and Vanuatu) looking to qualify for the championship. One story stands out: Gabon’s team captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (whose successful career includes playing for Barcelona) was born in France but  followed his heart by joining the team whose coach is his own father; however, he never managed to lead Gabon to the World Cup—and we all know France won the former championship. So, it is worth reflecting what motivates professional choices: whether you are playing in the major leagues of the world, or whether you can resign yourself to playing in minor leagues, whether it is for the love of your country, company, boss, family or team. 


2. Strategize—and Execute with Precision

And what about Morocco's success? With a coach who took over the team only three months prior to the competition, Morocco seems to have managed to do what few successful companies can: strategize by choosing a defensive tactic, deploying a speedy counterattack, and counting on the skillset of a great goalkeeper (plus having a lot of patience); and at the same time execute it to perfection, at least until the semifinals. How many of us can conceive and execute a strategy with this degree of perfection at such a short notice?


3. Build a Diverse Team, but also Adapt if Needed

Now, let’s focus on Brazil’s failure. Unlike Argentina, which after the defeat to Saudi Arabia changed the team and adapted its tactics prior to each match, Brazil stuck to the 4-1-5 formation in every match while only changing the players even though it lost the match against Cameroon. How many times do we stop and reflect that our approach may not bring the expected results, and that insisting on it could be fatal? Besides, the team depended a lot on a single player, Neymar. When he was absent from three games due to injury, the team suffered. Although nobody is irreplaceable, a good team cannot depend on a single talent. It is better to have a team of stars than having only stars in a team. Finally, it is worth remembering the issue of diversity. Brazil’s coach brought a much younger team to the Cup, just like France. In a crucial moment of tension in the game against Croatia, the youngsters couldn't hold on to the game for a mere 3 minutes. In other words, mixing experience with youth seems to be effective for teams.


4. Lean into Humility

Self-confidence is also something to be analyzed. After Neymar's goal during extra time against Croatia, pride rose to the team, which decided to focus on attacking the opponent rather than “closing the gate” by defending itself, as they say in soccer—leading to Brazil’s elimination from the championship. Even though bold entrepreneurs and leaders can add a lot of value in the business world, it is worth reflecting on the risk management and how much you are not seeing or hearing because you consider yourself above others.


5. Understand Management Styles

The World Cup is the biggest showcase a professional soccer player can have. So, what happened to Cameroon's goalkeeper André Onana, who was dismissed during the competition for indiscipline issues? He may have not adapted to his team coach, and that reality holds true in the business world too. We often do not choose our bosses, but it is worth reflecting on whether we want to adapt to their management style. The job market is very dynamic and offers a broad range of opportunity for change, while the World Cup only happens every four years. Perhaps Onana could have adapted for the sake of playing. But executives should assess values, purpose, and their preferred work model to understand whether they’d like to continue or quit depending on the circumstances. 


6. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Everyone saw the Belgium fiasco in the World Cup even though they disqualified for Brazil in 2018. Some factors may have weighted on the failure. Some say the team was old (the average was the highest in the competition at 30 years), others that players who were successful in the past weren’t as effective now. How much is your company or team still playing based only on the laurels of the past? Or more than that, how much are you as a professional still behaving according to the successes of the past but without paying attention to market changes and a new way of working or conducting business? Even though past behavior may be the best indicator of future behavior, there is a saying that "what got you there, probably won't get you there."


7. Foster Team Balance

Runner-up France displayed the best statistics of the Cup, having their top scorer Kylian Mbappé and the best attack of the competition. Many attribute this to great team spirit as the success was distributed among several players. Besides Mbappé, Olivier Giroud became the top scorer for the French national team, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris broke the record for international appearances, and Antoine Griezmann became the player with the highest number of passes. In our companies or teams, do we have this balance among our team members? If not, how can we foster it?


8. Read Scenarios, Embolden People, Build Followership

Finally, it is worth analyzing Argentina from two angles. First, young coach Lionel Scaloni presented a variation of tactics and ideas, not repeating line-ups throughout the knockout stage and got it right in all his choices. He demonstrated a key trait in leaders: the ability to read scenarios and adapt to them. How often do we change what we do to get different results? He even bet on two young forwards and left established players on the bench. Are we allowing room for talent to emerge in our organizations and to shine at decisive moments? 

Second, the team had Lionel Messi—the most spectacular player alive, but who had been criticized for not taking due responsibility in important matches in previous World Cups. Messi not only looked like he really wanted to wrap up his career at the top, but he was very comfortable helping and being served by players 15 years younger than him who had him as an idol. This shows the power of diversity. And more importantly, it demonstrates the role that a leader can and should have for his followers. Moreover, the whole team seemed imbued to crown Messi's career with the World Cup title for the respect and inspiration he incited. The high collaboration and intensity were there. 

While the next World Cup is only four years away, these learnings inspire us to reflect on what we can do today to change old scrips, become better leaders, and manage high-performing teams that are happy and drive good outcomes.


Editor's note: This article was adapted from a version originally published in Portuguese at Época Negócios.

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