There is no better place to observe teams than watching sports teams play and perform. And there is no better place to observe the difference leadership makes for a team than watching sports teams.
Since we are still in the football world cup my focus is on football. As a kid I used to listen on the radio to the world cup matches. 1958 was my first time. Ever since I paid a lot of attention to how the game evolved. 1966 I was glued to the TV and my Dad began to explain to me the important role of leadership in such teams. It was eye opener for me. And the beginning of my studying, knowing, and understanding of true leadership.
Roughly one can divide a football team into three main parts: defense, midfield, offense. Most people are looking for the offensive players, the strikers or scorers, their heroes. Yet, it is in the midfield where strategy and tactics are initiated. The true heroes are in the midfield. Execution starts here. Executing the strategies and tactics created by the trainer and coach together with his team. The trainer is the top leader of the team. And he needs his field commanders. Smart leaders able to read the game and execute on what has been trained so hard for.
“The offense is winning games. But the defense is winning championships.” a top football player summed it up. And it’s true. Championships not only are requiring a team effort. Winning a championship requires the ability to defend and hold the newly gained position. Only from this plateau the team can jump up to the next one.
As much as a trainer would want it, it’s impossible to predict the outcome. And trainers know that all too well. They understand complexity. Yet, that doesn’t mean that the trainer is preaching day in and out to his players that football is a complex game. A complex game in an even more complex environment. When a game is on and in full flow the team is required to function as a unit. And each individual player plays on the position he is best at. Choreographed and orchestrated by the trainer. Any situation coming out of the flow of the play is different. Mistakes are made. Passes not reaching the intended target. Hence, the players must know how to act and react properly. That’s what training is for.
Then there are the so-called standard situations. Free kicks, corners. And these standards can indeed be trained. Trained to the nitty gritty. Only then the players reach the precision they need to execute on the standard properly. Often, matches are decided through standards. As seen in this world cup. Mastering standards is a core skill of a successful team.
The offense, the strikers, are supposed to break through the opponent's lines. For that to happen they need spaces. But those spaces are blocked by the other teams defense. And it becomes very difficult to get close to the opponent’s goal, let alone to score. Unless …
That’s where the midfield comes in. The midfielders, executing on strategy and tactics, are, through their moves, creating the spaces the strikers need to break through. In order to be able to do that the midfielders must read the opponent’s game, system, strategy, tactics. It’s about deciphering what the opponent’s trainer had in mind. For that the midfield player must be quick. Quick in understanding the situation. And quick in executing the right move, the right pass that opens up the space. One second too long and you lose the ball. Worse, you lose your momentum.
That’s why trainers together with their teams study meticulously all the games the opponents have played in the past. Pathways of the players can tell you a lot, for instance. Most players behave in a certain and repetitive way. Their pathways become predictable up to a point. Few players remain unpredictable. Usually, those are intelligent ‘instinct players’. They have completely ‘weird’ pathways and yet seem to always appear in the right spot at the right time.
A strong defense is, of course, essential. It begins with the defending players. Specialized in interrupting the attacking players’ game. Stopping them, or forcing them to redirect their attack by blocking the space. With a great defense the goalie has not much to do. Yet, you always want to have a world class goalie keeping your goal clean. A great goalie distinguishes himself from an excellent goalie through his capacity to read the game and anticipate the attack and its direction.
Concluding, every part of the team and each member are important. Strikers alone can't do the job. They need a functioning midfield. And the midfield is useless without an excellent defense and goalie. Hence, what a trainer does is putting together a true clockwork.
Another aspect a great leader / trainer understands is that exchanging a player has immediate implications on the system, and on strategy and tactics. No one understands this better than Louis van Gaal, the trainer of the Netherlands' Oranje Team. There is a reason they are called 'Clockwork Orange'. They have consistently shown their ability to change systems 'on the go' in the middle of a match. A remarkable achievement.
Each opponent is different and thus plays different. And sometimes you face another team that is incredibly hard to play against. A tournament is long and a trainer must keep this in mind. Playing always beautiful is a surefire way into disaster. Dying in beauty. Efficiency is of the utmost importance. And Jogi Löw, the trainer of the German team, has this time shown his mastery.
What’s the learning for your team in your company / organization you might ask?
Take, for instance, a sales team. It’s not just a bunch of ‘strikers’ that get the orders in. Many years ago that might have worked somehow. Nowadays it doesn’t. Enabling the ‘sales strikers’ to strike requires preparation, requires a modern sales team. A sales team consisting, besides the ‘strikers’, of a solid home base. A home base able to create, initiate and execute on the strategy and tactics. Thus opening the spaces the ‘strikers’ need to score. And the home base also needs to protect the position. Hence, you can say that such a team has also defense, midfield, and offense. And above all it has leadership by a leader who is a trainer and coach.
Professional football has consistently shown over all these years that leadership is the decisive element for a top team. The top players know how to play excellent football. They master the techniques. They are physically and mentally in top form and thus able to pull off their very best consistently. Hence, you don’t have to explain it to them. The great trainers and leaders of the top teams have understood that all along since a long time ago.
The top teams of the world are very close with their abilities to play. The gaps, if there are any, are minimal. Hence, the difference makes excellence in leadership. Trainers and coaches that can bring out this often elusive 'play beyond excellence' or playing in the zone. Consistently.Unfortunately, organizations and companies don't seem to get the crucial importance of such leaders and trainers. Their top leaders are unwilling to dedicate time on this. Why? Maybe they are the wrong leaders. Thus, to speak in monetary terms, they leave billions on the table over time.