Lessons from the World Cup: What Makes a Great Manager?

Lessons from the World Cup: What Makes a Great Manager?
Do you consider yourself to be a good manager? There is an endless list of textbooks about management theory, but sometimes it’s easier learn from real world examples. As the World Cup reaches its peak, we decided to study the four managers that made it to the semi-finals. Each has their own style, which can be seen in the teams they manage, but they all exhibit characteristics that make them exceptional leaders. So what can we learn from Belgium’s Roberto Martínez, France’s Didier Deschamps, England’s Gareth Southgate and Croatia’s Zlatko Dalić.

Belgium – Roberto Martínez

Martinez Roberto Martínez is an analytical manager who likes to study the opposition and adapt his training sessions accordingly. As well as this, he is also a manager who understands the importance of culture. As one article points out, it has taken most of Martínez’s two years in charge to instil his own culture, in which players are challenged, coached, and given the tools they need to solve problems on the pitch. Culture is just as important in an organisation as it is on a football pitch. It all comes down to creating the right environment for people to perform at their best. Cultural diversity in particular is something that Martínez considers one of Belgium’s greatest strengths. Each player contributes something unique to the team. « The fascinating thing about Belgian players is that I managed three different players in the Premier League — Kevin Mirallas, Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini — and all three were very different, not just as players but as human beings, » he told one interviewer. It’s this diversity of skills and temperaments that gives Belgium the ability to innovate on the pitch – while still being united by a common cause, as highlighted by the team’s hashtag, #redtogether. Martínez is also keen to recognise individual players when they do a good job. He recently praised De Bruyne for his composure in a game against Japan: « I will always remember there was a moment at 0-2 down against Japan and he’s the one that is giving a bit of composure, a bit of belief and he’s getting everyone to know that we’ve still got time to get back into the game. That’s a role that allows us to be a team. »

France – Didier Deschamps

Deschamps Didier Deschamps was one of the most decorated players in history before moving into management. While some will question his « whatever it takes to win » attitude, he has also shown that he understands the importance of adaptability and creating a circle of trust. Deschamps stressed the importance of adaptability in one interview: « The key thing is knowing how to adapt, » he says. « Adapting to the group that you have at your disposal; adapting to the place where you’re working; adapting to the local environment. This is crucial: adaptability. It means being aware of the strengths and weaknesses inside the group; being aware of all the outside factors that can influence your sphere; and adapting to all of that, then modifying what you’ve done and not being afraid to change. » Being able to adapt is a key component of being a great manager. In football that can be making the right substitution at a critical moment in the game, in business it could be reassessing targets and deadlines after a bad quarter. Deschamps also understands the value of meaning. He understands that the motivational power of money is fairly limited, but making people a part of something bigger can be all the motivation they need. That isn’t always easy, but Deschamps knows that trust is important: « I don’t pay these guys, their club does, which is why I’m talking about a moral engagement. It’s about creating a link based on trust. The human relationships these days have become almost as important as what’s on the pitch. » The Psychology of Employee Engagement eBook. Free download.

England – Gareth Southgate

When Gareth Southgate was appointed England manager, some were concerned he was « too nice » to lead the national team, but his success so far only goes to show that managers come in all shapes, sizes and demeanours. One of Southgate’s most notable characteristics is that he trust his players to make the right decisions when they matter most. He understands the concept of autonomy and the fact that people are much more motivated when working towards a goal in their own way. That doesn’t mean Southgate goes into a game without a plan, but it shows that he values the opinions of his players and wants to give them the confidence to make decisions in the moment. He highlighted this approach in a recent interview with The Boot Room: « I like the players to speak up in meetings – I like them to have an opinion on the game, because in the 85th minute they have got to make a decision that might win or lose the game – and we can’t make all those decisions from the sideline. » Apart from a willingness to listen and trust in his players, Southgate is also a big believer in the power of clear communication. It takes time to get to know players (and employees), which is why it’s important to build trust and figure out how people like to communicate. « I think it is important to listen and I think it is important to get a feel of what motivates the individual. At the moment I don’t know all of those things with all of the players, but the more you work with people the better you start to understand them. »

Croatia – Zlatko Dalić

Dalic Zlatko Dalić was appointed as the manager of Croatia at the end of 2017, and has demonstrated his skill and perseverance in a very short space of time. He previously led Al Ain to victory in the 2014 President’s Cup and the 2014/15 Arabian Gulf League title. Dalić is confident in his team and their abilities, which he pointed out recently: « England will be a tough opponent, but we have great respect. They have been following and analyzing us, and we will do the same. We respect them, but above all I respect us. » This self-belief is the kind of behaviour that all managers should be demonstrating in front of their teams. It’s important for a manager to lead, especially when other people look to you for answers. Part of this self-belief stems from the people that Dalić has surrounded himself with. He is quick to recognise that his success has not been a solo effort: « Every one of them is great, but there are people around me, my staff who work with me and we all live as one family these 45 days and all have their merits. That’s why I’m really happy and I wouldn’t want to stop here. » Another trait that makes Dalić such a good manager is his willingness to learn from setbacks, like when his previous team lost in the Asian Champions League final. « Always I’m thinking about this final, because it was a big chance for me and a big chance for Al Ain, » he told one reporter. « But of course, I take something from this moment, especially personally. I must use it. I must be calm, be quiet, push my team to play fair football. But always, always, this final stays in my mind. »

Key Takeaways

No two leaders are the same, but there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the managers that have guided their teams to the final four of this year’s World Cup. Some of the most notable traits and characteristics of great managers on and off the pitch are:
  • Recognition – You might be in a position of authority, but without great people around you, you wouldn’t be able to accomplish much. It’s important to recognise the contributions of others, and motivate your team by acknowledging a job well done.
  • Autonomy – Make sure your team understands what is expected of them, but allow them freedom in the way they accomplish their tasks. Trying to control every aspect of someone’s work can be extremely harmful, so trust people to do their job.
  • Adaptability – Planning and preparation are an important part of success, but so is being able to make changes in the moment. If something isn’t working, never be afraid to take a step back, figure out why, and come up with a better plan of action.
  • Communication – The days of handing out orders to employees are gone. Talk to your team, learn what motivates them, and take a genuine interest in them as an individual. In return, you will receive better feedback and more original ideas, plus you’ll build trust in the process and lower the chance of employees leaving.