“We’ve got a lot of guys who will lead.” — DC United head coach Ben Olsen
Anyone can lead. Leadership is about who you are and what you do — it’s not about your title or your age. Leadership on a soccer field is distributed. On some plays some players take control, at other points those same players are following another player. The best players know when to step up and when to step back, when to lead and when to follow. When I interviewed Sarah Warren, an academic administrator and former collegiate player for my upcoming book Soccer Thinking for Management Success, she told me that “People can lead from the front, from behind, from the side…they might lead in one play but hang back on another…they might be a veteran player or a rookie. If you’re playing well as a team, leadership is distributed and fluid.” As Paul Arriola, one of the young players on whom Olsen is relying notes, “Being a leader doesn’t mean having the captain’s band or talking with a microphone.” Russell Canouse, another young player to whom Olsen is turning, told Goff that “anyone can take over and have an impact on a game and impact off the field…” The same is true for staff in organizations. If an organization has a clear goal, and the staff have a shared understanding of the strategy to achieve that goal and what is expected of them, then it is easy for the right person to step up in the right moment.
“They are going to lead in their own way.” — Ben Olsen
There are a lot of ways to lead. For Arriola, “It’s the little things. The big thing for me is staying positive and keeping the team positive.” According to Goff, Arriola is a “big personality” whose fluency in Spanish helps new signings from Latin America acclimate to a new team and country. Canouse is quieter, but just as much a leader through what he does on and off the field. Not all leaders are the same, and as a result not all leadership styles are the same. Some styles are needed in some situations, and other styles needed in other situations. An enthusiastic approach can keep players (and staff) going when the going is tough, but it can also be exhausting for both leader and led. A quiet and focused approach can be what’s called for to keep players (and staff) going through a long stretch, but sometimes can quash a needed spark of energy or insight that leads to a critical breakthrough. Leaders have to know themselves, and be confident enough in themselves to bring their approach to leading when that approach is needed — and to step back and let others with other approaches lead when the time is right.
Soccer is 90 minutes of systems thinking in action. The game moves through time and space, and aside from halftime, rarely stops long enough to formally regroup. That means that everyone on the team needs to know their role in the system, and needs to know what they can best do to help the system succeed in the moment. The same is true of modern organizations.
For more lessons for managers and organizations from soccer, look for Soccer Thinking for Management Success: Lessons for organizations from the world’s game due out this summer.