Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Leadership lessons of World Cup football finalists

Getting top talent to play (and work) well together is a real challenge. Read on for ideas on how to build team dynamics and positive behaviours that lead to world-champion success

My support of Oranje (as the KNVB Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbalbond or "Royal Netherlands Football Association" is more commonly called, a.k.a. the Flying Dutchmen or Clockwork Orange) has been both longstanding and long-suffering.

At each major tournament I would watch alongside other orange-clad fans as the Dutch national side - a team absolutely loaded with an absurd amount of football talent - would exhibit disjointed team play that, while marked with flashes of brilliance, too often stumbled toward the same grim ending: defeat and elimination.

The Dutch Dilemma - Overcome!

The 2010 FIFA World Cup has changed that. Yesterday was the high point of the Netherlands' successful campaign to return to the World Cup final for the first time in 32 years.

Coach Bert van Marwijk has overcome what I would call the "Dutch dilemma" (best described by former Ajax coach Henk ten Cate as: taking 23 top players with top egos and wishes and ideas and getting them play together as an effective team during several years of intermittent matches). It's a tough and unenviable task, one that's claimed many a coach's job and reputation in the past. Where Bert seems to have got it right is in building a team with depth.

Observes Leo Beenhakker (ex Real Madrid coach, ex Ajax coach, ex Oranje team manager and currently technical director of Feyenoord) "the way Bert works [is]: if back 1 is suspended, you use back 2. It’s logical. Van der Wiel is suspended, you use Boulah. I’d use De Zeeuw instead of De Jong. Don’t make a fuss. Get out there and play the best football you have."

I think this has sent the clear message to a team full of stars who could be forgiven for aspiring to primadonna status: "you are not irreplaceable; right behind you is another player who knows your job and can do it as least as well as you." Pretty swiftly it becomes clear that results are what counts, and in a team sport that means playing together as a effectively as a team.

Building your world-champion team

Here are some lessons from the Flying Dutchmen to put into effect with your team:

1) Everyone knows the game plan and what part they play in it. Any team is made up of interlinked roles and for the team to function, those interactions need to happen smoothly and according to an agreed plan.

2) While the coach ultimately makes the call on who starts, players are invited to give their views and input from their particular perspective and place on the field. It's a foolish coach who presumes that he's got perfect line-of-sight into everything that's happening in the game; smart coaches draw on the knowledge and experience of players to inform their decision-making.

3) Again, results are key and all eyes are firmly on the prize: "We have a mission," says assistant coach Frank de Boer. "That mission is to be champions of the world."

4) How the coach connects with the team must help foster a sense of belonging for each team member. Superstar players aren't playing WC games for the money - in the best teams, they're playing for their country and for each other. Empathy, inclusion and relationships, create a personal connection so that internal competition does not tear the team apart. Build authentic relationships between team members and they'll go the extra mile for you, contribute to each other's achievement and performance, and rightfully share in the jubilation of success.

5) And...there's a game to be won! So now that everyone's internally connected, how do you put on your best game-face and beat the other guys? You need to drill the basics, get clear on the step-by-step actions, make resources available, allocate them efficiently and leverage them to move forward. Watch game tapes before upcoming matches, ensure good information flow, analyze data for patterns to apply and exploit.

6) Finally, having something bigger than oneself helps motivate extraordinary contribution. Putting on that orange jersey, each player becomes part of something bigger: an extension of the Orange Army in the stands, carrying the national colours onto the field of battle, carrying the hopes of so many fans and earning their cheers of delight when the prize is won.

On to World Cup victory!!! 

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