Five leadership skills to learn from football.

There’s a big difference between the office and the experiences of elite football coaches. Football works within a short time frame, with coaches expected to radically change the situation on the pitch within months, often with minimal personnel changes. They do it in a high-pressure situation under the kind of constant scrutiny that is unheard of in most businesses.

Football’s most successful coaches, however, navigate this pressure cooker with skills that are useful to managers and team leads across all industries. As the best managers in the world, often with radically different styles, have these traits in common. To dig further into these ideas, we spoke in-depth with Peter Bosz, whose first season at PSV Eindhoven broke records and won major trophies.

In addition to the revelations of that podcast episode, we’ve discovered five things that managers can learn from football managers and coaches. We’ve dug into them with quotes from Peter and some of his most storied colleagues.

#1 Communicate clearly

It’s crucial for coaches to clearly communicate their ideas and expectations. Football is a game of fast-moving roles and fast-changing responsibilities within a team that has varied backgrounds, philosophies, and languages. Players need to know what is expected of them and what results they should be looking for. If someone is training well and doing well when they come in as a substitute, they need to know why they’re not starting, or they’ll lose motivation.

The same is true in offices. Too often, managers assume that there is an implicit understanding of roles and don’t spell it out. In a busy environment, it can be tempting to rely on shared assumptions, but you should resist the temptation. Communicate clearly at the start of a project and check in with team members throughout.

Your employees need to know what’s expected of them, both on a day-to-day project level and on a macro level. They need to know what it looks like to exceed expectations and what will happen if they do. They need to know where the problems are and how to fix them.

Here’s what Peter Bosz said about his communication at the start of a new season:

#2 Motivate your team

As important as it is to communicate your goals, that’s not the same thing as motivating your team to reach them. In football, as in business, fostering a drive or energy within your team can help them achieve the impossible – or, at least, the improbable. That may be why it’s such a challenging thing to do.

Some coaches do it by instilling fear, publicly berating players who fall short. While this can create short-term success, players quickly get frustrated and leave or tune out. Likewise, a manager who relies on negative motivation may find themselves left only with unmotivated employees who couldn’t find other options.

One particularly successful style is fostering a shared sense of belief. Jurgen Klopp has created teams that went toe-to-toe with much better-funded ones. He referred to his most recent team, Liverpool FC, as mentality monsters and his teams are known to have close bonds with the manager. Klopp believes this is created by not just sharing belief but also acting on it.

“If you want special results, you have to feel special things and do special things together,” Klopp once explained. “You can speak about spirit, or you can live it.”

#3 Keep evolving

Just as with any industry, football is constantly changing. What leads to success in one season can easily fall behind the times. Some of today’s less-regarded managers were previous seasons’ award-winners, some of them many times over. Their style of play and man management, however, hasn’t changed since those award-winning seasons, even as the world around them did. What was revolutionary and motivational at the time has become reactionary and doesn’t speak to a new generation of players.

This is a pitfall in many industries. It is far too easy to rely on what has worked before instead of finding new solutions. Successful managers, however, continue to challenge both themselves and their teams to evolve, innovate and find new solutions.

Pep Guardiola is regarded as one of the best managers in the game, with impressive records at three of the world's biggest clubs. He is also known as a football obsessive, who constantly thinks about new strategies.

He encapsulated his philosophy: “You have to be willing to change and adapt in order to succeed.”

#4 Hone your strategy and vision

Communication, motivation and evolution are powerful tools, but they need to be in service of a guiding vision and clear strategy. Your team needs to know in detail where they’re trying to go and how they’re going to get there. If you’re having trouble communicating the strategy in detail, it may mean that you need to get clearer about what precisely is the end goal.

Don’t stop at “win the game”. Your vision should be specific about what that looks like. Do you retain possession? Do you score by counterattacking? If you are clear with your team about precisely what you are all trying to achieve, whether it’s on a project or over the course of a year, it will be easier for them to discuss and implement the steps to get there.

Relative managerial newcomer Xabi Alonso burst into the headlines this year for winning the Bundesliga with Leverkusen, a club so perennially under-achieving that it was nicknamed "Neverkusen”. His success has been attributed to a combination of motivation and tactical overhaul that gave each position a role and a style.

“If you go out and play your own way, anything can happen,” Alonso has said. “You might win.”

#5 Embrace mistakes.

Mistakes are inevitable, whether on the football pitch or in the office. How those mistakes are treated, however, will have a huge impact on a team’s success. Mistakes can be an opportunity to learn something, but only if they are embraced. An atmosphere where mistakes are punished will lead to them being under-reported and not thoroughly discussed. By embracing mistakes, there’s a chance for the whole team to get better.

There’s also the issue of psychological safety, which has been shown to be an important element of success across endeavours. In order to take risks and find new ways to succeed, team members need to know that they won’t be punished if they fail. Just as with motivating through fear, reacting harshly to mistakes may sometimes create short-term results, but it will be less effective in the long run.

In our episode, Peter Bosz revealed this about psychological safety.

Football managers like PSV’s Peter Bosz have their skills honed in a high-pressure and high-profile environment. The people who have thrived on this playing field offer leadership lessons to managers across industries. Hopefully, this article and our interview with Peter Bosz have given you some ideas for how to hone your teams leads and managers skills.

Want to listen

to the full episode?

Discover more of Peter Bosz his insights, tips and tricks in our podcast episode 'Building winning teams: from sports to business'.

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