The World Cup has drawn on national pride to captivate hundreds of millions around the globe in the most-watched TV event ever. Most people watch the action. As a leadership groupie, I watch for lessons about the circumstances behind the action, the factors that propel any organization to victory.
Consider the contrast between the emotional meltdown of the French team, which was eliminated early, and the German team’s discipline as it advanced to the semifinals and perhaps to the Cup. Or the African comparison pointed out in the Wall Street Journal between Ghana, with a stable, transparent democracy and the proud achievement of being only the third African team ever to play in the quarterfinals, and Nigeria, whose losses were accompanied by a corruption investigation into the Nigerian Football Federation. Fair, transparent, collaborative = winning. Corrupt, chaotic, petty = losing.
The leadership culture surrounding teams shapes outcomes. Whether in the boardroom, locker room, or living room, success is derived from not just the talents of individuals but the context surrounding them.
This principle is visible in another international sport: cricket. To Americans, cricket is unfamiliar and incomprehensible. At least it was to me until my British student Emma Herbert explained it. But cricket is tremendously important to the countries from the former British empire that send teams to world cricket championships — Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and a 14-country coalition from the West Indies. Like the World Cup, cricket carries the weight of national attitudes and aspirations. Teams compete in three to six matches, each several days in length, or about 25 days of cricket, about the length of the World Cup.
As part of the research for my book Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End, Herbert and I examined why one formerly dominant team, West Indies, slid into decline, while another, Australia, came from behind to dominate the sport. Both involved culture and leadership.
In the West Indies, cricket was traditionally a street game, played anywhere by children with sticks. This ensured a large talent pool, enthusiastic and committed fans, and cricket stars who symbolized national pride. When the prime minister of Grenada — an idyllic but poverty-stricken island of 90,000 people — asked citizens to choose between a new hospital and a cricket stadium, they opted for the stadium, which cost about ten percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The prime minister won the next election in a landslide.
During the West Indies’ winning streak, the team had strong leadership and discipline. Old hands mentored novices. Instead of glorifying one star bowler (bowlers are similar to pitchers in American baseball), the team tended to “share the wicket around” (equivalent to giving everyone a chance to get on base). Innovations, such as fast bowling, changed the game from gentlemanly to aggressive. Great players became tour managers or coaches, ensuring continuity.
However, when the long-time West Indies captain was succeeded by revolving of warring manage unable to forge cooperation among 14 countries, team spirit disintegrated, and the West Indies began its slide into cricket oblivion. Tougher international competition raised standards of play, but the growing popularity of basketball (courtesy of U.S. television) meant that cricket talent no longer emerged naturally from the grass roots. As the West Indies lost, they became a less popular team. They could not command high fees for touring matches, which meant less money for training new players, for the upkeep of grounds, or for promoting the sport. Youngsters turned away from cricket.
The team once praised for professionalism was now described by sportswriters as negligent, careless, and indifferent. Defeat led to defeatism. Instead of solving the problem, the team blamed administrators, administrators blamed the captain, and everyone blamed American television for corrupting the culture. Cricket’s decline was seen as a metaphor for the region. Some saw the focus of the nations of the West Indies shifting from cricket and bananas to drugs and tourists.
Australia’s rise started with the Australian Cricket Board’s (now Cricket Australia) decision to build a winning national team. Strong new leadership brought stability and innovation in game tactics and team organization. Once chosen, players were allowed to mature, rather than being cycled through, which helped build a cohesive team. To invest in younger players, the ACB founded the National Cricket Academy in 1987. The academy leveraged partnerships with football clubs and sports institutes to mentor promising talent, offering scholarships to four-month programs, week-long targeted programs, and camps for younger players. As the number of world-class players increased, other countries asked Australians to help them create similar programs.
Winning made cricket more popular. Attendance at games increased, and money poured into the ACB from both turnstiles and sponsors, enabling increased investment in developing the game. The Australians livened up the game through colorful World Series matches, which attracted corporate sponsors — a cricketing innovation. Good press increased cricket’s attractiveness to youngsters, thus improving the pipeline. Australian cricket enjoyed a virtuous cycle of success.
The lessons for leaders: Your job is to provide resources and support that build the confidence of players in themselves, each other, the team, and the excellence of the surrounding system. Ethics, fair play, mentoring, smooth transitions, continuity, and collaboration should not be luxuries or lip service; they create the margin of victory.
From the Harvard Business Review