Article: What digital leaders can learn from football


What digital leaders can learn from football

Some interesting cues from football are becoming serious takeaways for business enterprises, which are keenly watching the Qatar World Cup from the ground level.
What digital leaders can learn from football

Football world cup fever has set in. It’s the biggest sporting showdown after the Olympics! Once branded as the hooligans’ game, football has risen in stature and size to take the centre stage in the sporting world. In terms of fan following, innovative formats of play, and adoption of technology that enhances viewers’ experience and players’ training, soccer has been pushing boundaries and exploring new vistas consistently. No wonder it is addictively entertaining: a post-match brawl or celebration often makes headlines in global media. The game is high-paced, energetic, unpredictable and a phenomenal show of skill, stamina, and athleticism.  

Quite tacitly, football has been offering some invaluable insights into the future of work and workplaces. What’s core to the game seems to be a new trend for the corporate world as they get digitalised and see an increase in the speed of operations and rapid changes in the environment. Some interesting cues from football are becoming serious takeaways for the business enterprises, which are keenly watching the Qatar games from the ground level -where the action happens!

Here are some lessons Football can offer to better understand the dynamics of work and the workplace in the future.

What’s the captain’s role

One may think that the captain is the leader, strategic thinker, motivator, and go-to person. All this is true but only till the game begins. Once the game starts, the captain is just another player! Pause, think and reflect – does this apply to the corporate world? Can the top management’s role be like any other employee’s? Sounds strange and iffy?

The speed of the game makes the captain also do the chores, and sink to the level of others. In football, and unlike in most other sports that are not as fast, the captain has no time to lead and direct. On the other hand, players are motivated, know their roles, and are focused on achieving a common ‘goal’.

In the corporate world, as organisations get digitally transformed and their speed of operation increases, the distance between the thinker and doer reduces – a flatter organisation structure enables the organisation to be more agile and responsive. This makes strategy and operations intermingle to deal with frequent and unpredictable changes in the external environment. Hence, business leaders need to get operationally involved too, like they already do in start-ups. It is all about speed, and speed of change that football truly testifies!

Is the captain a leader too?  Who is the leader of the team?

Leaderships of different kinds exist - Leaders by position and authority (Captain); skill and capabilities (Marquee player); by experience and qualifications (Senior Player), etc. In Football, besides the captain, the senior and marquee player can also be leaders who would be thinking strategies, working out plans for executions, suggesting improvements, etc. But all this happens before the game starts. When the game begins, who is the leader? 

The leader is the person in possession of the ball! Whatever he decides to do is binding on all the team members. He is not waiting for instructions or approvals. As the game progresses, new leaders emerge. Leaders are transient and leadership is democratized – every player is a skilled leader – the experienced and the novice, the professional and the amateur are leaders who wait for their opportunities to show their leadership talents. Think!

In the corporate world, such a phenomenon is seen in start-up organisations and in those where the culture supports empowering employees to take decisions independently.  

No longer are people at the bottom of the rung looking up to the people at the top for guidance and approval, thus appearing to be compliant. Likewise, people at the top, who are wise and experienced, also know that they may not have solutions for all the problems the enterprise faces. They, therefore, act as members of a task force where everyone is a leader. 

Transiency in leadership is happening on multiple accounts. Two of them can be directly identified as, the need to get digitally transformed and the inclusion of young people into the workforce.

Digitalisation increases the speed of business, which enforces systems and people to be agile and responsive to all kinds of changes. Employees are therefore empowered to take decisions and leadership skill is embedded into every job description. 

The young workforce at the workplace - the ‘chilled-out’ breed - wants minimal supervision, loathes bureaucracy, and is extremely excited to challenge status quo, including rules and regulations. They are curious, aware, motivated and empower themselves to experiment with new methods, ideas, and innovations without much regard for fear of failure. They seek their space to try, fail and try again. They find answers to their problems within their networks, which are unstructured, non-hierarchical, and social – involving people from outside the organisation’s structure. Everyone in the network is a leader. In the network, leadership emerges – there are no pre-defined persons identified as leaders!  

Football’s Egalitarian world and corporate’s hierarchical structure, roles, and responsibilities

Sports per se looks at players through a lens of equality. Football provides an interesting perspective on this. 

Football has its structure and positions – A 4-3-3-1 or 3-4-3-1 or 2-4-4 –1, as seen from the centre position to the goalkeeper, are structures that teams adopt, basis on their analysis of the game, opposition, etc. Players take up positions for which they are skilled, like, Forwards, Centre-Forwards, Defenders, and Goalkeeper. The last one is a specialist’s role. Besides, there are the left and right flanks of attackers and defenders, who are skilled to strike better with one of the legs. Every player is aware of other players’ skills as well as of his own.

The dynamic situation of the game quickly disrupts the initial structure and repositions skills. The defenders may be striking into the opposite team’s goal while a left flanker finds himself shooting from the right flank. There are freak occasions when the goalkeeper has deserted his position to strike a goal at the far end. 

Football also has the concept of substitution. Suddenly a player who was on field is replaced by a fellow mate. Further, there are times when a player has played the whole game without getting the ball to strike. Such quirks make one wonder if Football is anarchy. Who is responsible for what isn’t clear at all?

Football’s structure keeps changing and evolving with the game. Even though players constantly change their locations, they are never out of position in terms of knowledge of what they need to do. That’s why in this game no player has ever said, “this is not my role”! Everybody’s role is replaceable, by anybody, because everyone is trained to do the job it takes.  

Despite having a planned and predefined structure, roles, skills and responsibilities, players’ roles are completely fungible. This happens on account of the speed of the game. When the ball is passed to a player who is making his debut in that game, he immediately becomes the leader by taking possession of the ball and decides to strike as to what he thinks is the best thing to do. His action is supported by all his teammates even in the event that he has made a mistake. In Football, mistakes happened by the best and experienced too, and the game forgets and forgives for that moment. Of course, reviews happen during breaks and non-playing times, which help in course corrections and rebuilding strategies for better performance.

Thus, Football glorifies adaptability, agility, teamwork, equality, and purpose.   

As organisations witness changes in their speed of operations, employees need to have ‘psychological safety’ for experimenting with ideas and outcomes. Experiments are not always successful, hence psychological safety gives employees the courage and conviction to try better and harder.  

As roles and responsibilities get fungible, employees also need to become more adaptable. “I wasn’t hired for this role” or “my expertise and interests are elsewhere” will not help employees sustain themselves in the emerging digital world. In effect, corporates will start treating their employees like ‘athletes’- expecting them to be adroit, agile, adaptable, and accountable.  

As organisations move towards dealing with and solving unprecedented and unforeseen challenges, it is their human resources that will be besieged with finding solutions, involving multi-disciplinary knowledge, the complexity of options, and unpredictability in outcomes. The more ‘well-defined’ roles that managed predictable and routine challenges, will be done by technology and mechanization.

Compensation and earning ability

Once again, football provides a fascinating insight into earning ability: Kylian Mbappe (age 23) earns more than Messi (age 37) who earns more than Ronaldo (age 37). These are the earnings of the top three players, as per the current year’s ranking. The ability to earn is distinct from compensation which may be in the form of a match fee. Players earn beyond the ‘match fee’ on their current form and ability to positively impact the game. Their earnings have high variability and their earning ability almost always declines with increasing age.  

In football and most other sports, players earn through endorsements and branding, which is a function of their ‘impact’ factor. The impact is a perception, and therefore it fluctuates.

In the corporate world, senior roles have an impact factored into their compensation. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if through analytics and perception via social media, the impact is factored into everyone’s compensation in the future. This is much easier in the context of gig employees- which is already trending- where they earn based on client feedback, peer ratings, etc. which are on a digital platform.  

In essence, the world’s favourite game has been telling the corporate world to adjust, alter, amend, adapt and respect speed – the faster it gets the more radical the changes will be.  

The workplace of the future requires different thinking in employee-employer engagement and with its ecosystems. Making structures brittle, roles fungible, democratizing leadership skills, and making compensation non-linear may become the blueprint for corporate sustenance.  

Business leaders already know that the future is largely unpredictable and mostly incomprehensible and therefore, past experiences alone may not lead to better anticipation and answers to emerging challenges. Hence, they need to allow experimentation with the psychological safety provided to the employees. In the future, success will not be a function of a well-oiled and well-integrated process with clearly defined outcomes, it will emerge through trials, repeated attempts, and not being stopped by failures. 

Employees also need to understand and respect the fact that the game changes fast. Like the players who perform out in the open, whose performances are closely analysed, who are severely criticized for failures and praised to the skies for successes, by the ecosystem, employees must realise that their performances will also become visible to others (in their ecosystems), who would rate and evaluate them, which can impact her/his future. Further, changes in the environment can make existing knowledge and skill go obsolete without notice. That’s why, like a true athlete, they need to train regularly (upskilling), stay fit (mentally agile), avoid injuries (positive attitude) and practice relentlessly (persevering). These may well become the basic and necessary attributes for a professional career along with optimism, grit, and resilience in character, like that of a competitive athlete, who, from a string of failures can spring back to become a champion first and then a legend! 

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Topics: Culture

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