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What the 2018 World Cup Taught Us About Leadership Potential

by Neil Suchman

soccer playerThe 2018 World Cup was fascinating on several fronts. First off, it did not disappoint in terms of surprises—just one match ended in a 0-0 tie; during the first round, 13 goals across 11 matches were scored in overtime, seven of those goals determined the outcomes of matches; and the home team, Russia, beat powerhouse Spain—just to name a few thrilling events that occurred. 

Another very interesting and unique characteristic of this year’s World Cup was that there never really was a clear-cut favorite to win the tournament. There were a few teams that the experts (and the betting odds) mentioned as possible favorites such as Germany, Argentina, and Brazil, based on their past performance. However, none of these teams made it to the semifinals.

We also saw disappointing play from individual players who are the very best in their profession, such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. Despite poor individual performances from these players, we witnessed exciting games by evenly matched teams, none of which have players who are considered superstars. These teams (Belgium, Croatia, England, and Sweden—just to name a few teams) performed well thanks to talent evenly spread among the starters and their bench.

Adapting soccer’s strategy to leadership

Some experts in the media are calling this World Cup the beginning of a new soccer order, where gone are the days of relying on a few chosen heroes to take their teams to the finals (sometimes almost single handedly as Diego Maradona did for Argentina in 1986, or Johan Cruyff for Holland in 1978), but rather ensuring success through unleashing the potential of the many.

It was truly remarkable to see the matches between Croatia and its three opponents (Denmark, Russia, and England). All three were so exciting and evenly played that they all went into overtime. It is also significant to note that none of these four teams have the one or two distinguished megastars that was typical of teams in years’ past.

As leadership practitioners in the business world, should we (and can we) learn from this shift in soccer strategy? Are organizations relying too much on a select few high-potential leaders to take the organization to the next level? Are companies obtaining the expected ROI from their high-potential processes and initiatives? As I watched the World Cup, I could not help but make comparisons between what I was witnessing on TV and my experience with the treatment of potential within organizations. 

Talking about potential

Many managers would rather not have a robust and significant conversation about potential with their teams. It seems that talking about potential is somewhat taboo. There are several reasons for this, but the one probable culprit is that it has been decided that potential is for the select few, for those that make it into the 9-box process, which usually represents around four or five percent of an organization’s leader population. This has created the unintended consequence of a sense of the “haves and the have nots.” So why would a manager want to talk to a direct report about his or her potential knowing that he or she is not part of that select group of individuals?

Unfortunately, this dynamic has had a limiting effect on tapping the potential that exists in most of the organization. Here at DDI, we believe that the best gauge of the quantity of leadership in an organization is the frequency of the use of leadership behaviors, not the number of leaders. The issue facing many organizations is how to move beyond “high-potential” programs to realize the organization´s full potential—and to offer more opportunities for more of the organization to demonstrate leadership behaviors.

Focusing on ‘the many’

Just like the successful World Cup coaches who realized that the better strategy was to have the best collective plan rather than the best players, managers in organizations need to rely less on a small group of people to take on all the organization´s biggest challenges, and begin to surface, activate, and accelerate the potential of their entire team.

Both Portugal and France are good examples of this. Despite a solid performance from the superstar and five-time winner of the Ballon d’Or (Golden Ball), Cristiano Ronaldo, his Portugal team was disqualified after the first round due to an inability of the team to play to its fullest potential. The 2018 World Cup champions, France, do have one young, 19-year-old rising star in Kylian Mbappé. However, Didier Deschamps (France´s coach) built a legacy through his astute ability to adapt his team to the new soccer context of unleashing the collective capability rather than placing his bets only on Mbappé.

What will be your legacy as a leader?

Download the new DDI eBook, Turning Potential Into Profit: An Action Guide To Unleashing Leadership Potential For Business Results.

Neil Suchman manages the DDI’s Brazil operation, focusing on global talent management and leadership initiatives, and making them relevant to the Brazilian and Latin American market. He is currently trying to instill in his three children (all under the age of nine) the importance of growing up globally, To this point, however, they have instilled in him the importance of … playing hide and seek! 

Posted: 24 Jul, 2018,
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