5 Leadership Lessons from the #worldcup

On the surface of it, it seems rather ridiculous for so much time, energy and attention to be dedicated to a series of football (soccer) matches. After all, it’s just a game. It’s not like these are brain surgeons or great statesmen or even great philosophers. Why does the World Cup matter so much and what can we learn from it?


South Africans were reminded who they are

For many years held up as the African exception and an inspiration for countries trying to move beyond past internal conflicts, South Africa has been struggling for the past couple of years. The promise of the Rainbow Nation seemed to be fading, with domestic unrest on the rise and national politics giving way to personal politics and infighting. People outside the country began to fret: what if South Africa falters seriously? What are the implications for the rest of the continent?

The desire to bring the World Cup to South Africa was criticised by many: surely the government would be better off dedicating the significant budget for Cup preparations to healthcare, education and policing. Those are priorities; a football tournament is frivolous. Such thoughts are understandable, but they are wrong.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the movie Invictus came out just before the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It recounts how a newly elected Nelson Mandela, faced with the enormous challenge of presiding over a scarred country in desperate need of healing, made the 1996 Rugby World Cup a priority. In that case, he was less preoccupied with the organisation of the Cup than having the Springboks win the Cup and the hearts of ALL South African citizens. He wanted the battle on the rugby field to unite people and to help them forget their daily differences. The 2010 FIFA World Cup was like a booster shot reminding South Africans of the shared potential of their country and the fact that they are stronger together than they are separately, a concept known as Ubuntu (derived from Bantu).

Sometimes we need to be reminded of the wonderful things we can accomplish together and our ability to surpass ourselves, given the chance and the right leadership. This idea is too often lost as our societies become increasingly task-oriented and focused on the short term.


Africans took confidence in what they can do

One of the wonderful things about the World Cup is that it was not just an accomplishment for one country; it was a celebration of an entire continent’s potential. I think many countries in Africa feel vindicated by the fact that South Africa organised a successful and safe world-class event. Furthermore, in the words of the former captain of the Liberia national team, George Weah, this World Cup was an accomplishment that other African countries can be inspired by.

But South Africa was not the only country carrying the continent’s torch, and the African solidarity that emerged was another touching feature of this World Cup. Five African teams made it through the qualifying matches to play in South Africa. When Ghana was left as the only African team still playing, the South Africans didn’t just support the Black Stars; South Africa adopted them. With its own Bafana Bafana team eliminated, South Africans promptly started rooting for the squad they had rebaptised “BaGhana BaGhana”.


Each of us became a little less “me” and a little more “we”

The FIFA World Cup encourages us to root for a variety of teams. Each of us is likely to have a preference in the daily dual (sometimes for strategic reasons and sometimes simply a coup de coeur). As the teams we root for are successively eliminated, we have to reconsider our choices and change loyalties. This helps overcome national divisions. At the same time, a sports event like the World Cup does allow countries to express their pride and chauvinism in a safe and constructive way. Witness the number of national politicians filmed in the stands rooting vigorously for their respective teams, the fans dressed in creative (and sometimes ridiculous) outfits to root for their teams, or supporters half a world away frantically driving, honking and waving flags when their team advanced.

Imagine the celebration in Accra the night the Black Stars eliminated the USA. In what other arena else could Ghana currently hope to outperform the USA? How much better for countries to engage in ritualised confrontations on the soccer field than real ones on the battlefield! We have a human need to belong to tribes and to be part of a “we”; ritualised conflicts allow us to channel that energy in a constructive way.

While the grand struggles amongst nations appeal to our heroic side, the human drama that unfolds during a World Cup appeals to our humanity. How not to feel the disappointment of players realising that their situation is beyond all hope or to be moved by players sobbing inconsolably when their teams lost? How not to glory in the victories of the underdogs and gloat, even if a little, as the defending champs and favourites were quickly shown the door? At the end of the day, people are attracted to good stories about other people.

5 leadership lessons that can be distilled from my World Cup musings

  1. Great leadership is not just about getting people to meet objectives. It is about helping them spread their wings and surpass themselves.
  2. Sometimes immediate tasks should be put on hold while the group accomplishes inspiring things.
  3. Team pride can be a great motivator, if it’s channelled constructively.
  4. Leading by example can be a great way to build confidence and inspire others.
  5. We are all people first and pats of organisations second. Appeal to the humanity in people and watch them shine.


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