Research - 08.07.2014 - 00:00 

Leading like a world champion

What can executives learn from high-performance sports teams? The HSG leadership experts Wolfgang Jenewein and Thomas Kochanek have examined some football teams’ playing styles and compiled the most important lessons.


10 July 2014. Conditions in the corporate world have undergone fundamental changes since the advent of the internet in the past few years. Organisations are confronted with new complexities again and again on a daily basis. But only a small number of these companies have been prepared for these changed general conditions or have even begun to implement initial adaptation processes.

Instead, people in today’s everyday corporate world indulge in blinkered thinking, retain hierarchical structures and issue rallying calls. They prefer to face the rapidly changing conditions in trade and industry by mastering more of the same task instead of downshifting at regular intervals, pausing to think and reflect, and freeing up potentials for genuine innovation.

Making use of the intelligence of the swarm

Modern football teams realised years ago that the phenomenon of complexity can only be countered with complexity. They make use of the intelligence of the swarm, which has been demonstrated to us by nature from time immemorial. Thus bees ally themselves in an enormous swarm in order to a

ward off enemies that appear to be overpowering. Birds form a collective in order to fly to distant destinations under the protection of their community. And in our society, too, the notion of the intelligence of the swarm is increasingly gaining ground; the statistics of the German version of the quiz programme “Who wants to be a millionaire?” are a case in point, where the audience joker has a hit rate of over 91%.

Today, the playing and leadership styles of successful football teams like the German national side, FC Barcelona or FC Bayern Munich, increasingly resemble the above-mentioned swarm. Shorter passes and continual changes in position make for a dynamic and unpredictable playing style, which cannot be exposed by the “heat maps” used to analyse matches.

Motivation and inspiration

Such high-performance teams are directed by a coach who devotes his entire attention to leadership functions such as the motivation, inspiration and development of his team members. In business, however, we still tend to find so-called part-time leaders, who are overburdened by management tasks and scarcely find any time to assume leadership functions in the course of their day, which, after all, only has 24 hours like everyone else’s.

In an article recently published by the Harvard Business Manager, four St.Gallen academics headed by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Jenewein issued five recommendations about what executives can learn from the new playing style of outstanding football teams: a playing style that is based on the lessons of the tiki-taka system is subject to continuous development and creates a competitive edge vis-à-vis opponents.

The recommendations include “Pursuing visions”, “Becoming leader of an expedition”, “Setting learning objectives” and “Leading full time”. These concepts, which the authors derived from high-performance sport, can serve as parallels for executives in everyday business life.

Picture: Photocase / time

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