Leadership Lessons from the World Cup

As the 2018 FIFA World Cup comes to an end, I’d like to reflect on some of the life lessons that can be illustrated through the tournament.  If you’re not familiar with the Wold Cup or haven’t been watching, you should know that the tournament is one of the most prestigious sporting events in the world, exceeding even the Olympic Games.  3.2 billion people (almost half of the world’s population) tuned in to watch the 2014 World Cup.  This year, the tournament took place over a period of about one month (from June 14th – July 15th, 2018) and consisted of 32 of the top teams in the world who competed for the FIFA World Cup Trophy.  After weeks of fierce competition and spectacular play, it was the team from France that came out as the champion.  If you watched any of their games, you could easily see how their teamwork, communication and skills helped them defeat the young team from Croatia, 4-2 in the Final.

The leadership demonstrated in the sports world are akin to the qualities seen within great organizations and successful individuals.  Here are a few that stand out to me:

Have a vision and mission 

The vision and mission of any organization help define “who we are, what we value, and where we’re going.”  Studies have shown that organizations with clearly communicated, understood, and collectively shared missions and visions perform better than those without them.  A successful organization needs to be aware of their values and goals to get to their destination.  Coming in to the tournament, Brazil seemed to be a team who had taken a turn for the better with new leadership and vision.  Dunga was coach when qualification began and the team was not playing their best, while sitting in sixth place.  When Tite took over as coach, the team seemed to get back on track and they became the first national team to secure its place in the World Cup with a finish on top of the South American qualifiers.  At the time, they clearly seemed like a team with a new vision.  Unfortunately, they exited the tournament earlier than expected when they lost in the quarter-finals.

Use open, honest, and direct communication.

Leaders who communicate effectively don’t leave their team confused or wondering what they need to do.  By giving honest and direct feedback, individuals know what their role is and how they’re doing on helping the organization reach it’s goal.  Communication on the field helps the team work as a unit and adjust to changing situations.  Throughout his career, Didier Deschamps, manager of Les Bleus team from France has stood out as a leader and he helped take his team to their first final since 1998.

Encourage a culture of positivity and risk-taking

The best businessmen and sports heroes are those who are creative, innovative and who are risk-takers. They’re not afraid to fail, as they know that taking risks can also lead to the greatest rewards.  In a competitive environment, taking risks can separate an organization from all of it’s competitors.  Good leaders know this and they promote a culture where other’s aren’t afraid to think outside of the box.  This year’s tournament included several surprising upsets, from under-dog teams who weren’t afraid to take risks.

Recognize achievements as well as the “wins”

Great leaders appreciate their teams on a regular basis and recognize the small things that are done, which lead to accomplishing the overall goal.  The World Cup would be very boring if the fans only cheered for goals, while not recognizing big plays and passes too.  Encouraging a culture of recognition helps teams feel empowered and reminds them that small victories are just steps in their journey reach their collective goal.

Champion pride in the team   

A team that takes pride in their work, organization’s values and goals will be more likely to go the extra mile and be more committed.  They feel good about what they’re doing and will likely put forth more effort to ensure the organizations success.  While fans cheered for individual players such as Ronaldo and Messi, the French team had too many weapons in their arsenal, which helped them defeat anyone who stood in their path.  At times they looked unbeatable and they won with finesse.

Encourage input and opinions

Good leaders allow their team to have an opinion and influence change.  “Bosses” who bark orders are missing out on new ideas and suggestions – often coming from those putting in the work and who know the ins and outs.  Openness creates opportunity for different solutions and more effective ways of reaching a goal.  This also helps each individual take “ownership” in the organization.

Learn from your mistakes

Mistakes are inevitable, especially when risk-taking is encouraged.  However, each mistake or “failure” can be a lesson – a lesson on what doesn’t work or what needs to be improved.  Mistakes are opportunities to improve.  An organization that can learn from their mistakes and not repeat them are bound to be more successful in the long run.

Columbia demonstrated this in the early rounds with a never give up attitude as they moved forward despite early mistakes.  In their first game, they imploded early with a red card and loss in what was believed to be the weaker side of the group.  They responded with a big win over Poland then dominated early against Senegal before losing Rodriguez to an injury.  They kept their focus and won the game with a header.

Finally, and my favorite lesson from the World Cup (as well as other sports)….

Never under-estimate the underdog!

Odds-makers are notorious for picking the favorites.  However, much of the excitement of the World Cup comes from the fact that any team can win on any given day.  In the first week of this year’s play, two of the biggest favorites to win (Germany and Argentina) were both upset by unlikely underdogs (Mexico and Croatia, respectively).  We all love a “Cinderella Story,” where a team achieves far greater success than would be expected…through heart, perseverance and determination.  The team from Croatia, who had about a 3 percent chance of winning the whole tournament when it started, when on to the final game and finished second over-all.

The World Cup offers an exciting sports venue as well as valuable lessons for life and leadership.  When we take the time, there is much to learn from both.

Submit your thoughts or other leadership qualities that you’ve observed below.


About Mark Williams

Mark is a 50 year old sports fanatic, who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida. He's a passionate sports fan, who loves FSU football, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Bucs! He has written as a Correspondent for the Florida Panthers on The Hockey Writers and enjoys blogging about sports and inspirational stories. When not busy following sports, Mark works as a licensed psychotherapist. His dream is to combine his passion for sports and helping people through his writing. Email: mark@thoughtsonsports.com

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