The value of inspirational leadership

In a post just before Christmas, I’d written about the importance of working with managers who believe in us. The impetus for that post was watching the highlights of a Manchester United game under the new interim manager which saw the team hit 5 goals for the first time in 5 years.

That match, it turned out, was a watershed moment. Under the leadership of the interim manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United went on an impressive winning streak – 7 consecutive games, 8 consecutive away games, and victories against top rivals. Through this process, we learnt that Solskjaer wasn’t just a club legend brought in to tide the team through the rest of the season. He was an astute manager and an inspirational leader.

While he’s exceeded all expectations so far, he faced the biggest challenge of his reign yesterday. His only defeat thus far came in the European Champions League against heavyweights Paris Saint Germain. He lost two of his best players to injuries in the first half and the team lost 2-0 in the first leg.

So, he headed to the second leg facing a task that had eluded 106 other teams who lost 2-0 in the first leg in the knock out stages. In the world’s elite football tournament, no one made their way back at 2-0. But, that was not all. He also had 10 senior players out of his 22 member squad injured. So, he fielded a make-shift team with 4 teenage substitutes – all of whom had never played a game in the Champions League for Manchester United. And, to top it off, he’d lost his talisman – midfielder Paul Pogba – as he was suspended after two yellow card fouls in the first leg.

Against all odds, the team won 3-1 and are through to the quarter finals. They rode their luck, they took their chances, and they made it.

This victory was a great reminder of the value of inspirational leadership to me. United were given a 6.7% chance by the bookmakers at the start of the game. But, Solskjaer got every member of the team to believe in their own capabilities, to keep faith in each other, and to dig deep and find that extra bit of energy and resolve when they most needed it.

When that happens, individuals and teams are capable of overcoming absurd odds.

Playing for managers who believe in us

I’ve been following Manchester United football club for 15 years now. While the regularity with which I watch games has waxed and waned over the years, it has been particularly difficult since our second baby arrived earlier this year. But, in this case, neither did I really want to watch the team play regularly. Watching the team play felt like a soulless experience.

The manager of a football/soccer club is the work equivalent of 3 levels of management. They are the soul of the football club and carry immense decision making power as long as they have the CEO and Board’s backing. And, for the past two and a half years, the manager of Manchester United sucked all joy out of the club. Worst of all, he alienated most of his players by repeatedly shaming them in front of the media.

So, it was truly wonderful to check out the highlights of the game yesterday as a new era dawned on the club. The team scored 5 goals in a single game for the first time in 5 years. And, the players seemed to have fun.

The saying – people don’t leave companies, they leave their managers – crossed my mind as I watched yesterday’s highlights for the third time. Playing for a manager who believed in them lifted every player on the team. We saw more creativity, more hustle, and more happiness than we’d seen in a long time.

Managers matter. Investing in finding and working for managers who believe in us can make more of a difference than we sometimes realize.

The World Cup

I’m not watching the world cup yet. But, I am enjoying following it and I look forward to catching a few of the games toward the end. There have already been exciting moments, upsets, and fascinating stories. For example, defending champions Germany just prevented elimination after their second game witha goal in the 5th minute of extra time. There are going to be many more such moments.

But, it isn’t just the thrills and spills that makes the world cup special. The magic of the world cup lies in its ability to capture our collective imaginations and remind us that, despite the many obvious differences between all of us on display, we can collectively enjoy twenty two strangers trying to kick a ball into a net.

It is absurd. It is human. It is fun.

Lord knows we need more of that…

Working your way through painful conditioning

I joined a group of very skillful footballers I didn’t know for a game last week. It has become a habit to do this wherever I am – find a place where footballers gather, join them, and ask if I can join. It’s a simple idea and is one that seems to work around the world, regardless of language.

Before you get in, getting in seems to be the challenge (and this applies to every place we try to get in – prestigious jobs, schools). It soon becomes evident that staying in, staying motivated and sustaining high performance is the hard part. I hadn’t played football for many months before I got in to play 4 days ago and, when playing with a high skill group, it shows. It wasn’t a bad game but I got out feeling aches and pains in multiple places. I had a few blisters too and immediately replaced my old studs with new ones to solve that problem.

The next day was worse. While there were no aches, pains or blisters, my complete lack of game time showed strongly as I was part of a poor team. We lost all 5 games I played in and I went home feeling demotivated. I tried reminding myself that I was doing this only for fun but it still hurt. The competitive person within hates being the person that sucks. The resistance even tried popping up to dissuade me from playing on Monday (i.e. today). That’s not going to happen.

If you’re wondering why I’d rather continue to embarrass myself, then you should know why… THIS is painful conditioning. This is the stuff I talk about on this blog nearly every day. THIS is the hard part. THIS is an example of the daily grind and the war we wage with the resistance.

There is no shortcut. I just have to work my way back in – play more to get my touch back, get fitter so I can compensate for my lack of touch with graft, and start again from the basics.

We just have to work our way through the painful conditioning to the places where the good stuff happens..

Losing 11-0

2 years ago, a few friends and I signed up for an amateur football league in London. We initially signed up for the 6th/bottom division and soon realized that there weren’t as many teams as required to operate 6 divisions. So, all of us were lumped onto 1 division. The next misunderstanding became apparent pretty soon – the teams who participated weren’t really “amateur.”

We lost 11-0 in our first game. I’d love to say it got better. But, it didn’t. We continued losing by huge margins and our problems only increased with time. For example, our team members soon lost interest in showing up on a freezing Saturday morning and getting thrashed (imagine that). After a particularly bad 15-0 defeat, we decided to call it quits. Our average score in the 10 or so matches we played was a 11-0 defeat.

Just yesterday, a friend (from this football team) and I exchanged emails and laughed about our 11-0 defeats. As I was thinking about it, I realized that I learnt a lot from that experience. First, it was a true test of willpower to wake up and head half way across London on a cold and rainy Saturday morning knowing fully well that a 11-0 thrashing awaited us. Second, I tried really hard to make the best of it – even resorting to send “a learning a week” emails to motivate the team after a particularly bad thrashing. It didn’t work.

And, perhaps, the attempt not working was the most important learning of all. We realized we were completely out-classed and would never be good enough. We just needed to call it quits and go home.

Sometimes, that’s as good a lesson to learn as any.