Using Soccer to Teach Leadership


Soccer is by far the world’s most popular sport.  In many ways, soccer, or football as it is known outside of America, transcends the sports world and is deeply embedded in the culture of most countries.  The hype and media saturation of soccer is going to increase steadily as we approach World Cup 2010 in South Africa.  The Confederation Cup Final, June 28th featuring the United States versus Brazil, was an exciting prelude to what we can expect next summer. 


Given the popularity of soccer globally, it is surprising that the metaphor of soccer and language of the game has not permeated the culture of business and the body of work that makes up leadership development.  That may be about to change with the recent publication of “The Collaborator: Discover Soccer as a Metaphor for Global Business Leadership” by Winsor Jenkins.

In the United States, the use of sport metaphors in business is quite common, but they tend to be related to American Football (“we really need to ‘punt’ on this one”) or baseball (“it’s better to hit lots of singles and doubles.”)  The author makes a great case for leveraging soccer as a tool to teach managers how to lead in a global business environment.  Soccer has several advantages over football and baseball, at least when it comes to serving as a business metaphor:

  1. It’s global.  You don’t have to “translate” your baseball metaphor so your team members in India and Dubai understand what you’re trying to say.  As Winsor Jenkins says in the book, “Soccer is imprinted in the world’s DNA.”
  2. A soccer team is the ultimate self-directed work team.  Unlike most sports, a soccer team receives very little communication or direction from the manager or coach during the game.  Soccer teams don’t wait for the “play to be called in” or the “manager to change the pitcher,” rather the team is forced to respond to changing conditions as they happen on the field.  This requires a high level of trust, communication and collaboration from team members, exactly the kinds of conditions we expect of our global business teams
  3. Soccer is not position driven.  A soccer team consists of 11 players, and they are called upon to play both offense and defense for the full ninety minutes of the game.  So a good soccer team, like a good business team, consists of well-rounded players who can be called upon to perform various skills and roles.
  4. Just about everybody can play soccer.  To play soccer one does not need to be extremely tall, or extremely large, or even small for that matter.  Although it certainly helps to be in good physical condition, great soccer players come in all shapes and sizes, and that is one reason, the sport appeals to a much larger audience globally than any other sport.  Soccer attracts diverse players and a good soccer team is able to leverage the diversity of their team members (skills, talents, functions, personalities, age, race, gender and cultural) to achieve results and win games. 

When you add all of this up, the author says, ” Soccer provides the best example of what the interdependent nature of the team experience looks like.”

As you consider creating the next “high potential” program or leadership development experience, take a moment to reflect on how the metaphor of soccer might advance the learning objectives you set out to achieve.  People tend to assume that “what works in America is the appropriate way to deal with people working in Europe, South America and Asia for example.”  Given that most people around the globe grew up with soccer and already understand the leadership principles embedded in the game itself, why not leverage that knowledge to help new managers lead business teams that “score goals” for your company?

1. Focus On Team – Not Position

2. Understand That Everybody Can Play

3. Embrace Diversity

4. Rely On Each Other

5. Promote Both Individual and Team Values

6. Seek Skillful, Adaptable Players

7. Charge The Team To Perform The Work

8. Empower Players To Win

9. Coach Teams To Respond To Changing Conditions On Their Own

10. Develop Partners On The Field

11. Achieve Cross-Cultural Agility

Source: The Collaborator – Discover Soccer as a Metaphor for Global Business Success


  • I have regularly used sports analogies in business. But until recently I haven’t been too informed about soccer. World Cup? Is that the same as a travel cup? Like a lot of parents, I have coached youth sports, primarily basketball. But several years ago I got the opportunity to coach my older son’s 4th grade recreational soccer team because they didn’t have a coach. It turned out be a fun experience and some of those boys have now moved on to play on their respective high school soccer teams despite having me as their coach earlier in their development, including my son. Watching my son play goalkeeper on his high school JV team has given me a greater appreciation for the sport. For example, watching the strategy and execution of soccer teams during a corner kick reminds me of aligning work teams around the objectives during a pressure situation such as a critical initiative that has a very short deadline. Because of these experiences, I now have a little better appreciation for the soccer-to-business analogies pointed out in this article. I will have to add Winsor’s book to my reading list.

  • […] Our View: Like other team sports, soccer provides an excellent platform to teach leadership lessons. Soccer is a truly global sport that demonstrates the interdependent nature of the team experience. A soccer team is not driven by positions and instead, consists of 11 players that are called upon to play both offense and defense. Whether it’s coaching a winning soccer team or leading a good business team, the leader must inspire a group of well-rounded players that can be called upon to perform various skills and roles. The overarching lesson to focus on team and not position is a key leadership takeaway from soccer. Further Reading […]

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