Valuable leadership lessons from World Cup 2023

America has been slow to gather the fanatic exuberance for football, aka soccer, found throughout the rest of the world. For a long time I, personally, couldn’t understand why that was. The game is the beauty of complex strategy played out in wonderful splendor. Who wouldn’t love this?

2022’s World Cup matches served as a connectivity moment as to why, or at least so I think.  While watching some of the matches play out, it occurred to me how notably different soccer is in comparison to the top sports in the United States.

In the States, the top sports are Football (American), Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey. Each of these sports is attack-focused. Football drives down the field in an effort to score a touchdown. Baseball is all about hitting the bar far enough to get on base with the goal of scoring runs. Basketball and hockey all focus on plays that drive forward toward scoring points and goals. But soccer has a unique quality about the way it goes about scoring.

Scoring in soccer is more than forward-driving efforts. Oftentimes, teams must go backward to regroup, reset, and reapproach. To those unfamiliar with the sport and game, this can be infuriating. After all, if the goal of a team’s effort is to score, then pushing toward the area for scoring should be the focus. In soccer, it’s more strategic than any of these other popular sports in that the retreat is just as important as the forward push.

Forward momentum offensive strikes are exhilarating and feel more in line with the goal, but for every strike a vulnerability manifests. Smart teams identify and exploit that vulnerability and can make teams pay. Retreating prevents this by empowering teams to maintain control of the ball, the clock, and the pitch. Teams who understand and employ this effectively, ultimately win.

But, what’s this have to do with business and leadership?

A lot of times leaders see retreating as failure and failure is not usually baked into a leader’s DNA. Despite “fail fast” mentalities in Silicon Valley, most leaders avoid failures at all costs. And in a lot of cases, it truly is at all costs. They overcommit to decisions and refuse to step back. They push on clear losing efforts for fear of failing or being wrong. The results are detrimental to growth, profitability, and culture. Nevertheless, they persist.

Smart leaders should take note of the nuances of soccer. Retreating isn’t failure. Instead, it heightens the chances of success by ensuring the attack is as strong as possible. A failed effort, or an attack that has clear shortcomings, is easily avoided by resetting and reapproaching. In these cases, the team maintains control of the ball and the game despite the retreat. Maintaining control is a critical factor in stronger strategies and efforts in every part of life including business leadership. If you have control, you have the power to shift, pivot, and reapproach any problem.

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