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The role of the leader in a winning team

July 23, 2014

Last week, my blog examined the team dynamics and processes that made Germany the winning team at the 2014 World Cup. This week I’m going to look at why some talented teams failed, and contrast their attributes to Germany, highlighting the impact of leadership as a difference between winning and losing teams.

A group of individuals doesn’t become a team just because it’s a called ‘a team’, there are a whole range of psychological and workflow processes to be developed to enable a group that functions well together. Like any group of people with a purpose, football depends on the whole team and not on individuals. Leadership is many things, but for a team it’s about ensuring the focus, processes and rhythm of the collective functions collaboratively.

In some games you could see the indiscipline displayed by some of the players who openly disagreed amongst themselves, they seemed unclear as to what their role was, or lacked an understanding of working together – Brazil’s astonishing 1-7 defeat to Germany reflected many of these dysfunctions. A lack of unity, team spirit and focus was evident. Where was the leadership?

Brazil’s semi-final collapse highlighted many of the characteristics that Patrick Lencioni identified in his seminal work, ‘The five dysfunctions of teams’, often arising due to a leadership vacuum:

  • Absence of Trust – here members lack confidence in the sincerity of intentions of their peers and thus unable to trust fully in their commitment to the team.
  • Fear of conflict – results in a lack of facing up to the real issues hindering team success, wasting time and energy on personal opinions, neglecting real team engagement
  • Lack of commitment – creates ambiguity and lack of clarity on the direction and purpose of the team, creates inertia, and thus a lack of alignment.
  • Avoidance of accountability – everyone hides and avoids calling peers to account on performance or behaviours that are hurting the team, which creates resentment and delivers mediocrity.
  • Inattention to results – doesn’t have a performance oriented culture, thus stagnates, fails to grow, and loses sense of direction and purpose.

Ultimately, Brazil’s demise was down to lack of leadership on the day, in the moment when it mattered, on and off the pitch, to address these dysfunctions. It also reflected on the leadership on German manager Joachim Löw, and the longer-term strategic thinking and planning that he had put in place, compared to Brazil and other teams.

Here are some of Löw’s leadership attributes I noted at the World Cup.

1. A leader shapes culture After several failures in the 1990s, Germany went through a complete transformation in the early 2000s. This started with Juergen Klinsmann with his then assistant Joachim Löw – development of training centres for young talent, focus on technical play, no ‘star players’ but a cohesion of complementary players (from starters to bench). It was a change of thinking to the entire culture, strategy and planning.

2. Leadership is about long-term thinking Despite myths to the contrary, success most often results from the long-term investment of time, effort and hard work, not an overnight miracle. Germany’s success validates this with the initiative highlighted above. The fruits of the strategy were evident: Germany has reached at least the semi-finals in the last four World Cups.

3. Leadership means you can’t stand still Equally, you have to rejuvenate a talented and winning team and disrupt the comfort zone to challenge complacency. For the last five years, Spain dominated world football. Their golden generation was unchallenged from the 2008 European Championship, the 2010 World Cup to the 2012 European Championship. Their error in 2014 was to rely too much on their aging team, and not bring new talent. Teams have cycles, and it’s vital to be ruthless and recognise when momentum has peaked. Leadership drives change at the peak of success.

4. Leadership means taking responsibility and accountability Löw is not emblematic of the popular stereotype of a leader. He’s low key and somewhat uncharismatic, and more focused on the team than personal media attention. However, the defining quality of a leader is their ability to create a winning team – that’s their primary responsibility.

Contrast German captain Phillip Lahm to Thiago Silva, Brazil’s captain, who failed miserably. From refusing to be part of the penalty shootout in the quarter-final because he could not handle the pressure, to receiving a second yellow card on a stupid foul that kept him out of the semi-final match against Germany, Silva showed that if you don’t live up to your responsibilities as a leader, repercussions on the team can be disastrous. Lahm played in every game for Germany, and was the complete leader on the field.

5. Leadership is about creating a winning mentality In contrast to the mayhem of the Brazil-Germany semi-final, the second semi-final between the Netherlands and Argentina was one of the most boring matches of the tournament. It’s easy to understand with the stakes so high and Brazil’s humiliating loss so fresh, no player wanted to make the mistake that could cost his team a place in the final.

However, it illustrates an important business lesson – playing not to lose is not the same thing as playing to win. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a budding entrepreneur or an established CEO, when you start replacing creative choices with safe choices, avoiding smart risks, and not leveraging the full potential of your skills and resources, you might squeak through, but are you really winning? Take your destiny in your own hands and make it happen – why play chance and wait for the lottery of penalties? Löw played to win, every game, and got the rewards.

6. A leader has to be disciplined yet opportunistic German instinct is about organisation, discipline and efficiency, it’s in their dna. Yet they were also opportunistic. Against Brazil, they seized all opportunities to score four goals in six minutes to kill the game after just 20 minutes. The mannschaft showed that discipline, strong organisation, and an ability to seize opportunities helps you win. All organisations must be prepared, but also entrepreneurial. Löw built a team that was focused, had a game plan, but took advantage clinically.

7. Leadership melds introverts and extroverts We tend to think of the extroverts as superior team-players, they mix better, pipe up more in meetings and generally seem to be getting on with others more smoothly. However, introverts have their place. Introverts certainly don’t blow their own trumpets and aren’t often noticed at the outset, yet eventually the group comes to value them.

That’s what Bendersky and Shah’s 2010 study found in their research of introverts and extroverts working together. In general, as the team evolves, extroverts do worse than people expect and introverts do better. The quiet ones come through in the end. Again Löw’s team was a notable mix of strong, forceful personalities, and quieter, less outgoing folk, but the cadence he created worked. There was a clear team spirit, where everyone respected each other, and importantly, played for each other.

Löw’s leadership was as important to the team as were the players and the teamwork produced. His attitude and strategy seemed to be ‘will this help us win the game?’, a positive mindset to steer them to victory.

His approach reminded me much of Ben Hunt-Davis’s story in ‘Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?’, a personal account that brilliantly illustrates the dedication required to become a gold medallist, and part of a team. It’s a fascinating and inspiring book, ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ is a simple question and goes to the heart of the matter – stay focused on what you’re really going for.

I love the driving thought behind this book: If you are an Olympic rowing team, then if what you’re doing doesn’t make your boat go faster, then don’t do it and do something else that does. This book conveys the drama, the heartache and the pride with spine-tingling detail – it will have you on the edge of your seat.

Ben Hunt-Davis spent 10 years chasing the Olympic dream in GB Men’s Rowing Eight – 6th in Barcelona, 8th in Atlanta and then Gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  Behind every celebration on the podium lies thousands of hours of hard training, relentless mental focus, and choosing to get up each morning before the rest of the world in pursuit of that something extra which just might give you the winning margin in an Olympic final.

I’ve spent the last 20 years admiring our Olympic rowers – Redgrave, Pinsent, Cracknell, Foster and the Searle brothers, the physicality and endurance of effort is truly stunning. I tried rowing for three weeks at university but stuck to rugby as it was less mentally and physically painful!

Like Löw, Hunt-Davis has a ‘Crazy Goal’ as the critical starting point. You need the aspirational goal, the thing that gives direction and that everyone buys into, the goals that allow people to share their mutual desire, the stake in the ground, but beyond that you need to be able to measure what you’re doing. Be it to win a football World Cup or Olympic Gold,  you need to have clarity on why you’re doing it, and then measure how much progress are you making, are you moving in the right direction?

Without a way to measure, the crazy goals stay crazy… they remain a dream. Its just as Jim Collins advocated in ‘Good to Great’, you need a Big Hairy Audacious Goal to align the team, and the leader can keep that as the shining light when things go wrong to remind everyone what it is they are trying to achieve.

Ben’s book also highlights three underpinning forces that a team leader must focus upon:

Team rhythm is key, in terms of the workflow, energy and efficiency of a team. Sounds obvious for a team of rowers, but it also applies to any work team that is effective and economic in how it goes about its business. Haphazard won’t get you across the line in first place.

Focus on the process of winning, not the winning. This means stop focusing on results, but focus on the process and drivers that will get you the results. What do you need to do to make it happen? Measure your performance in the moment, control the controllables.

Keep talking. Always be analysing your performance, figuring out how to up your game, agree what you want to achieve and learn. After every session discuss what has gone well and what you need to do differently another time.

Ben Hunt-Davis realised his Crazy Goal at 10.30am on 24 September 2000, winning by 0.4 seconds over a 5.5 minute race. The margins between victory and coming second are minute. And his overwhelming emotion at that moment? Relief, relief that they’d done it.

Read the book, it will give you goosebumps as a narrative for a business leader looking in on the psychology, camaraderie and habits of a team, but also the simplicity to ask yourself ‘will it make the business go faster’ as a guiding principle in steering your team towards a goal.

Both Löw and Ben Hunt set a Crazy Goal, and made it happen, giving clear lessons for any leader as to the difference they can make in building a winning team,  and I’m minded by T E Lawrence’s words, in ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’: All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.

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