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Five Leadership Lessons from the World Cup

Courtney Lynch, July 8, 2019

Service.  Spirit.  Success.

I’ve been tuned into as many minutes of the World Cup as life and work have allowed.   Like millions around the world, I’ve enjoyed cheering for my team.   Yet, this year’s Cup has meant so much more to me.   As a woman who’s often chosen nontraditional career paths (military, law, business), I have valued the fact that a women’s team has been granted the closest thing to parity that I’ve seen on the world’s sporting stage.

As a student of leadership, I have also loved the laboratory the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) has provided for those of us seeking to be better leaders.    Here are just a few of the lessons that have been clear to me:

1.  Serving your team is more valuable (and effective) than serving just yourself.  In soccer, getting the ball down the field into a position where another team member can score is called service.  The US Team did this brilliantly, outscoring their seven opponents 26-3.   They also served each other well off the field.  Review their post-game interviews.  Yes, you’ll see them acknowledge their own contributions.  Yet, what stands out the most is how players gush on and on about the accomplishments of their teammates.

Ask yourself: How well do you highlight the success of others you work with?  

2.  Shining as a team requires creating the space for individuals to be themselves.  The spotlight was bright on the US team during their time in France.  From political sparring, to tea sipping controversies, players were debated (at best) and chastised (at worst) by pundits and fans.  Never once did they break ranks and disparage one another.  Their team spirit was strong.   It showed up in their continuous, consistent support for the individuality of one another.   Strong teams have conflict, dissent and friction.  They also stick together.

Ask yourself: Can you recognize how what makes you different from your co-workers makes you valuable?  Does your team give you the space to be authentic? 

3.  Superstar moments are thrilling, yet a deep bench of talent is what gets results.  Soccer is a team sport through and through.  Individuals step up in clutch moments, but matches are won by group effort.  The US traveled with 23 players to the tournament, 21 saw game time action.  Most squads had just 16 or 17 top players rotating in and out during their matches.   One reason the US was unbeatable was because just when opponents thought they’d worn them down, fresh talent was ready to go.

Ask yourself: Does your team have strong talent at all levels and in all roles?  If not, how can you improve talent from the frontlines to the executive level?

4.  Commitment to vision and strategy for diversity and talent development yields results.  Title IX came into being in 1972, barring discrimination against girls and women in federally-funded education, including athletics.  This was a critical turning point in allowing the US to build dominance in women’s soccer.  So many young girls of the 70’s (myself included) were encouraged and inspired to grow and develop through sports.  I know I never would have been successful as a Marine without first seeing what I was made of on a soccer pitch, baseball diamond, cheerleading squad and basketball court.

Ask yourself: What is your company, department or team doing now to ensure results far into the future?

5.  Lastly, the USNWT’s success in the World Cup is a complete endorsement of the effectiveness of performance management.   I can assure you that each day those talented players showed up at work they were given feedback as they were coached and mentored to stronger and stronger performance.  Mistakes weren’t devastating.  They were opportunities to course correct and grow.  To be a high performing team, you must be willing to talk about what’s not working, affirm what is, and continue to raise the bar on how you define success.

Ask yourself: How do you and your team deal with criticism?  Do you get defensive, or do you see it as an opportunity to grow?

Congrats to the amazing women of the USWNT…… well played.  Thank you for showing us how champions lead.

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