Soccer Mgrs make Great Business Leaders

We have all seen it before. A major decision has to be made, a presentation has to be shared or a financial allocation routine needs approval and what happens? Senior level leaders ask for the information in a month (a reasonable expectation by most standards) but the delegation to middle managers turns into a concoction of hurried information and mindless review only exacerbated by the number of levels of managers in the organization. The result is obvious; micromanagement has created poor morale and decisions; well-intentioned, are suspect.

Although these activities are destructive; they are ubiquitous. They happen in most organizations in a weekly, if not daily frequency. Why? Looking through the lenses of a sports enthusiast; this series of checking and re-checking is a direct result of the “coach’s condition”.

The lack of trust in employees and the belief that coaches are as much a part of the match permeates throughout the sporting and business world. Just attend a youth event and listen to the active set of instructions coaches shout during the play. “Pass the ball”, “Run to your left”, “Shoot” and “Don’t swing” are common expressions heard while the player has a split second to decide for him/herself what to do. Micromanagement is additionally encouraged in the rules of the game themselves. American football coaches get three time-outs to instruct and/or adjust per half. This is in addition to the TV time-outs and the endless personal adjustments that can occur at the end of each play. These coaching changes and opportunities to influence the game are even greater in hockey, baseball and especially in basketball.

The link between business and sport is tethered.  The same dads and mom that spend their Saturdays calling timeouts and micromanaging children are the same ones in the office from 9-5, Monday through Friday.  The scene may have changed, but the characteristics remain the same.  Micromanaging firms may be successful in the short term but typically are not sustainable.

An example can be found in the famous case of Lee Iacocca at Chrysler articulated in the book, “From Good to Great” written by Jim Collins.  Iacocca, he said, did improve the fate of Chrysler while he was chief executive, but he never completed a long-term vision for the company. Evidence of the micro-managing existed in the lack of leadership when he left the company.  The tribulations of Chrysler are well documented including the recent need for Government funds…again.  Chrysler, Collins notes, is an example of “good-to-great-to-imploding”.

Micromanaging or the “coach’s condition” cannot successfully exist long-term in the business world or through the course of a season in one particular sport: Soccer.

There are three major reasons why on the pitch, in the board room or in the office soccer managers make great business leaders.

  • An understanding that the game is a player-centric sport.
  • Mangers can’t make all of the decisions in an effective organization. They have to   rely on the people they are leading
  • As soccer managers are unable to play the match themselves, their influence can be seen   through the design of formation to enable their strategy on the players.


  • Organizational design is a critical component to encourage the right behaviors in the firm.
  • The match is a fluid activity without timeouts. The manager’s direct impact is further limited by the finite number of substitutions in National play (one country   vs another). In these matches, managers only get three (3) subs the entire   match.
  • Business   is a 24×7 cycle. There is no ability to stop customers from coming to the   door and continue to be successful. Decisions happen in the course of a   business cycle; not outside of it.


Understanding that the game is a player-centric sport

Managers can’t make all of the decisions in an effective organization. They have to rely on the people they are leading. This is the basic function of management. Players and employees were hired for their experience, intelligence and motivation to do the job well. Soccer managers are trained to trust and depend on the player’s physical and cognitive skills within the course of the match. With other sports, players look to the coach for what to do next (play calls) in basketball, signals in baseball and the directions called in from the sideline for American football. Coaches make game adjustments and provided immediate validation of success or failure. Not true in soccer. The players and more importantly; the employees within the firm are capable of making decisions in the course of the business day (or match) and understand what is successful or not.

In the firm, employees are educated and intrinsically motivated to handle the rigors of the job. Soccer managers, as well, have the unique privilege of working with a higher form of cognitive ability with their players. The experience of managing cerebral players enables a seamless move from the pitch to the conference room.

According to research Plos One and reported by Wired magazine; which soccer players, “…excel is executive function — a term that includes creative problem solving, multi-tasking, inhibition and working memory. That last one, working memory, refers to the ability to recall previously stored information on the spot and use it to problem solve. Many of these are skills that can be seen on the field: employing strategy in the midst of a game (creativity, working memory), executing a play while also surveying the field (multi-tasking) and following the rules of the game (inhibition).”


Soccer managers influence the match through the formation to enable their strategy on the players

The challenge is how to influence without actually being in the meeting or on the pitch to kick the ball. This is a constant dilemma for all firms. Organizational design is a critical component to encourage the right behaviors in the firm. In the end, these constructs are paramount to a manager’s ability to influence. For example, a firm can organize (as described by: by the classic constructs of:

  • Functional
  • Geographical
  • Product
  •  Customer / Market
  • Matrixed
  • Strategic Business Unit

How to organize is based on a set of influences as firms adapt to the market, become too large by organic growth or through M&A. Geographical challenges are especially complex as well as product prioritization and brand alignment. Organizational design is intended to eliminate the complexities and draw upon the strengths of the firm and to enable the managers and employees to be individuals within the strategy of the firm or team. These challenges are the same for soccer managers.

Players come from different countries and speak different languages. The geographical and cultural challenges are always present. Even so, teams with significant foreign players are doing well. This past season (2012) Manchester City had players from England, Spain, Italy, etc… and they won the English Premier League (EPL). Newcastle United brought in an influx of players from France and Senegal and moved strikingly up the EPL table. How was the manager able to influence a diverse team to succeed?  Obviously, there are many cultural and language barriers to manage, but during the course of the match and much like the organization model in firms, managers rely on formations to influence the team.

Formations (4-4-2, 3-5-2, etc…) become the common language for footballers. Esperanto in its concept, the formation dictates behaviors and guard-rails to play within.  For example, a “4-4-2” formation communicates the importance of ball control across the pitch and highlights the risks of the gaps that exist between the central defenders, midfielders and strikers. The “4-3-3” formation emphasizes the outside midfield attack at the expense of defense.  As in business, the formation or organizational design enables the manager to communicate priorities, risks and strategy to the employees.


The match is a fluid activity without timeouts.

Business is a 24×7 cycle. There isn’t an ability to stop customers from coming through the door and stillcontinue to be successful. Decisions happen in the course of a business cycle; not outside of it. There are hundreds of business books, Harvard Business Review articles and thousands of blogs on how firms ‘can’, ‘should’ or ‘should have’ adjusted to changing market conditions. Every market adjustment is unique and the behavior to adjust in mid-game is challenging. The American sports mindset of calling a “time-out”; ever present in a game, does not exist in business or a soccer match.

Additionally, adjustments are not haphazard. They are planned, thought through and analyzed during the course of the match. Take, for example, a couple of years ago, an adjustment made by Manchester City against my favorite team, Newcastle United. A must-win for both, the second half started 0-0 with both teams playing anxiously. Newcastle was trying to earn a spot in the Champions League and City trying to win the Premiership title. Twenty minutes into the second half, the City coach (Mancini) made a change by replacing an attacking player (Nasri) for a defensive one (de Jong), the seemingly counterintuitive move enabled another player (Toure) to advance up the pitch exposing a gap in the Newcastle midfield.  This move from Mancini enabled Toure to draw upon his strengths and eventually scored two goals.

Mancini’s decision was a simple one that yielded the needed result. But breaking down the move, one can see the brilliance in its simplicity. Mancini did not call the play, call ‘timeout’ or send in a signal; he noticed an advantage and supported his players to be successful.


In the end, the characteristics of successful business leaders and soccer managers are one-in-the-same. In both scenarios, they rely on the people they are leading, use the structure to enable tendencies & behaviors and make decisions within the business cycle. Of course, in my humble opinion, these traits are best demonstrated in the confines of St. James Park.

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