Outstanding Leadership – a Case Study

Nico, my 8-year-old son, was playing in a local underage football tournament recently. .

The Cabo World Cup takes place over two weeks. It involves a mix of club players all around our part of Dublin.

Some players can hardly kick a ball. Others look destined to represent their country.

When the teams were announced, we found out Nico was to play with Sierra Leone.

The manager was Graham, whose son plays with Nico in his club. Other than that, Nico didn’t know anyone else involved. A group of individuals who have to come together as a team…how does one make this work?

I’m sure that you, Jasper, have seen project teams, or otherwise, thrown together quickly in your line of work. It’s familiar territory these days.

Creating the environment for success

Graham, the manager, impressed me from the outset.

He included everyone, players, siblings and parents, emotionally and practically. He made everyone feel like they were part of a team. He wanted everyone to enjoy the experience and he worked hard for that to be the case.

Sierra Leone started poorly. It wasn’t that surprising to be honest. There were a few fellas on the team who hadn’t played much ball before. But everyone played at least ¾ of every game, subs rotated on and off.

Graham’s message was clear. Keep playing for each other, the performance will get better and the results will change. We will get better and better.

Unforgiving and ruthless competition

Having lost the first game, they drew the 2nd. They won their third game.

Then, in the fourth match of the round-robin group stage, they came up against the strongest team on paper.

Somehow Ghana had a star player from each of the three local teams on their side. Ghana were winning 6-0 at half time. Some of the Sierra Leone team were overwhelmed and didn’t want to go out and play the second half.

Graham’s message was consistent and clear. Keep playing for each other, the performance will get better and the results will change. He gave them guidance, individually and collectively as to how they could improve.

And they did, they drew the second half 2-2, losing the tie 8-2 overall.

Graham’s message began to land.

The lads showed up in great spirits a few days later and won their last group match. That meant they qualified for a play-off game, still with an outside chance of making the Cup ¼ finals.

Nico enjoys playing in a number of positions, including Goalie. So Graham and Nico agreed that he’d play in nets for the first half of the matches, and up front or on the wing for the second half.

The play-off

Against South Korea in the play-off match, they were playing into a strong wind in the first half.

Graham’s son (also Graham) was a Braveheart at the back. Roy of the Rovers, Croí, was at a different level to the rest of the team. He was everywhere on the pitch. A phenomenal work ethic from the rest kept Sierra Leone in it. They were under the pump.

Having made a bunch of great saves, Nico then let in a soft goal. I could feel his disappointment from the sideline.

Crushing. 0-1 at half time.

Nico walked slowly to the team huddle in the centre of the pitch, head down. He voluntarily acknowledged his mistake to Graham and the lads.

“Nico, chin up. Name a player in sport who hasn’t made a mistake. It’s a part of playing sports. It’s what we do next that matters. Isn’t that right lads?”

Everyone agreed. “Let’s do it together”. Again, Graham offered some guidance on where things could be tweaked, always getting buy-in from the players as he went along.

They kept getting stronger. They took on the tactical advice offered, played tighter, played to their strengths.

They played for each other.

Nico got an assist and scored the 3rd in a 3-1 victory. Boom! Onwards.

Reframing challenge as opportunity

The dreaded Ghana were the opposition, the team that had thumped them 8-2, and scared the life out of them earlier in the competition.

As Nico and I chatted in the build-up, we spoke about how the previous scoreline created an advantage for Sierra Leone. Ghana would think this would be easy. Sierra Leona could surprise them, and stun them.

The parents whatsapp group had messages of a similar theme.

I was away at a friend’s wedding, so Ciara kept me and a bunch of my friends updated, huddled around the phone.

Roy of the Rovers, Croí, scored early for Sierra Leona. The team limited Ghana to sniffs at goal. Nico hardly had a save to make in the first half. The second half went well.

Into the semi final. 1-1 at full time and unfortunately they lost 3-1 after extra-time, with Croí (Roy of the Rovers) playing extra-time with a badly injured arm. No way he was leaving the pitch.

Everyone’s Team

The parents whatsapp group was ablaze for a couple of days. Croí, Roy of the Rovers, had never had more fun playing football apparently. This was incredible feedback coming from a kid who’s in the top stream of the local powerhouse youth club that consistently produces internationals.

What led to it? Phenomenal leadership, and an inclusive environment that got the best out of all involved.

This combination demonstrates all of the lessons we can all learn from and apply in business.

They owned the experience, individually and collectively.

Question for you:

Think of something that you’ve observed recently, that was far removed from the business environment, which serves as a great lesson in leadership of teamship – what is it?

Reply and let me know.