Blimey, An Olympic Turnaround! The Leadership Principles Behind Britain's Shot At Soccer Gold

British soccer—or football, whatever you call it—hasn't won Olympic gold in a century. To turn the team around, head coach Stuart Pearce has stuck to four guiding leadership principles that any business would do well to emulate.

Not only is the 2012 Games being played in London for a historic third time, these Games also mark the 100th anniversary of the last Great Britain soccer gold and the first time in more than forty years that all four nations that comprise Great Britain have partnered to field a medal-worthy team. The pressure is on, and given Great Britain’s longstanding absence from the medal podium, turning this team around is a focus.

To make a hometown run for gold, the British team (which tied its first Olympic match with Senegal 1-1) will need to observe these leadership principles.

Do what's best for the team, not the past: David Beckham, one of the most recognized players in the world and a major figure in London’s effort to secure the Olympics, was left off the 2012 Great Britain roster. Rather than include Beckham, who has played in more international competitions for England than any other field player ever, head coach, Stuart Pearce, and his staff are looking to less experienced international players to define a new start. While the decision has been widely discussed, criticized and analyzed, ultimately Pearce made a move that will be considered brilliant should the team succeed. To leave an icon off the roster was likely a difficult and trying decision for Pearce and his staff, but along with the struggle is a clear message that this team is being constructed anew with the goal to win as opposed to maintaining an eye on sentimentality for previous struggles.

Engage team leaders to connect with the team: Leaving Beckham off the roster presents a genuine challenge regarding leadership on the team. In the absence of Beckham, Pearce has turned to Ryan Giggs, a 38-year-old Welshman who has never competed in a major international competition. Giggs, a Manchester United legend who has orchestrated one of the most celebrated football careers in the history of Great Britain, has never been able to qualify for a major tournament while playing with the less powerful Wales. With Great Britain fully united, Giggs is getting a well-deserved shot at major international play. Giggs has been named the captain of the team, and Stuart Pearce has been outspoken in his support. It was even announced that for the first time in Pearce’s coaching career a captain had been invited into coaching meetings, where Giggs has been asked for input and ideas. By showing Giggs so much support and respect, Pearce is also strengthening the bridge between the players and coaches—a bridge that can never be too strong.

Potential and hunger trumps experience: Perhaps the best example of Great Britain’s commitment to a fresh start is the addition of 19-year-old goaltender, Jack Butland. While a player like Giggs is a bit of an unknown on the international stage, his professional success with the most revered professional sport franchise in the world is epic. In contrast, Butland is not only lacking international experience, he has relatively no professional experience either (He’s played less than 30 professional games in League Two). While still a teenager, Butland is lacking experience in nearly every capacity possible, but he’s widely considered to be up for the task of shouldering the immense pressure brought on by the Olympics. Butland’s skill and playing ability have been reported to be well beyond his years, and Pearce’s commitment to the youngster as the starting keeper will build confidence while echoing the larger sentiment that this is a new Great Britain team focused on goals that haven’t been reached in recent decades.

A leader's loyalty will be returned: For Pearce and the Great Britain team, confidence and camaraderie seem to be evolving. In addition to giving opportunity to players who have previously not played on this caliber of stage, Pearce is also standing strongly beside the players he’s committed to. As with his vocal support of Giggs, earlier this summer, Pearce stood behind Daniel Sturridge, a talented player who was diagnosed with viral meningitis in early July. Whereas many coaches might have scratched Sturridge from the final roster, Pearce took a chance and left him on. At this point, Sturridge’s health is back, he’s publicly thanked his coach for allowing him to remain on the team, and once again a loud message has been sent. In spite of obstacles, this team believes in each other and ultimately stands strong beside each other.

Challenge your team and learn: Finally, Pearce has strived to build much needed resilience in his squad. By playing a friendly match with international powerhouse Brazil, Great Britain will enter the Olympic Games having played the very best. Although Great Britain lost the match 2-0, they gave themselves an opportunity to expose flaws, highlight strengths, and learn how to play against the best teams in the field. To be the best, Great Britain knows it has to beat the best. By taking on Brazil in a friendly match, the Great Britain team has taken one step closer to preparing itself for gold.

In many ways, the process that the Great Britain soccer team is going through mirrors the turnaround efforts of many corporate entities. Whether Great Britain wins the gold or falls short remains to be seen, but their effort to orchestrate a turnaround is praiseworthy.

Business leaders would be well served to note the team’s willingness to strike convention in an effort to achieve a lofty vision, use unproven players who are hungry for success, work hard for a dedicated coach who stands by his players, and take on the toughest challenges to build much needed resilience.

Dan Leidl and Joe Frontiera are a managing partners of Meno Consulting and co-authors of Team Turnarounds: A Playbook for Transforming Underperforming Teams. Connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Rhea Monique]

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  • Amber King

    Great comparison on leadership and teamwork. I believe that one major factor that a business succeed is how leaders handle their team. I like how coach Giggs invite Pearce into meetings and get his feedback. This should also be applied to companies, we as leaders, should remember that it is the team that is does the daily things. They of all people know who and what works and what doesn't. Their input is as important.