What the World Cup Can Remind Us about the Constant Quest to Improve Government

As a colleague and I were debating over positive and negative attributes of the recent World Cup held in Brazil (Congrats Germany but what a match, Argentina!) and as I watched my husband and many friends bloom into some shape or form of a soccer fan over the last several weeks (mostly because the US actually put in a respectable performance!), I found myself very proud of the sport of soccer. I played competitively ages 5 through 18, often dedicating up to 4-5 hours a day to training on two teams. I found myself over-sharing a bunch of positivity about soccer and reflecting on the teamwork, perseverance, and leadership through humility that is required to excel in this demanding sport. And let’s face it, if we applied and constantly re-applied these principles more centrally to government policies and practices (and life in general), it would likely result in tremendous progress, and we would be a lot better off along the way. OK, let’s get the dirty looks off the table: soccer is usually a very low scoring, low-physical contact sport that can be confusing, and sometimes players at the national and international levels do a lot of diving onto the ground like a wet fish, which is just embarrassing to watch for all. There is a questionable level of subjectivity in refereeing the game, and we don’t need to get started on FIFA or fan behavior. Back to my point...

Teamwork: To have a great soccer team, you have to have a group of people that are working together by relying 110% on each other for the success of the team to achieve the common (literal and figurative) goal. It is extremely uncommon to score a goal and be the only person to touch the ball (hence why the kick-off goal by Dempsey in the US – Ghana game was such a big deal). It usually takes several touches over several minutes from several teammates to finally get the ball in the net. And not every move is forward, it often makes sense to pass back, regroup, make various runs to stretch the field, and then begin again to press forward. This applies to every day in government – from reports to briefings, it is far more important to get the information right than to move it forward just for the sake of going forward. In a planning meeting the other day, a colleague and I used the phrase, “sometimes we have to go slow to go fast” to prepare for a strategic planning session. The concept really resonated with the police and fire chiefs in the room. When we are navigating tough governmental issues, it usually benefits us tremendously to take a step back, enhance the perspective to encompass the entire playing field, and then move forward again for results.

Perseverance: 90 minutes of running a range of paces, spanning an 8-minute mile jog at the slowest, to super sprinting?! Well, I guess if we all did this regularly, just about everything would be better off. But fitness is just one aspect. Recall that amazing game-winning goal in the Germany-Argentina final when Gotze chest trapped, then volleyed the ball perfectly into the back of the net? He has probably been practicing those moves for 15 years, at least. And he is young. And he is also not part of the first string of the German team, but he showed up and proved himself by making a big play in a big game when it counted. Fostering a perseverance perspective across government would benefit us all as we are literally navigating some of the toughest policy and implementation challenges that exist to make our world a better place (not hinder it through red tape!). The mission to serve our communities and be the best stewards of tax dollars as possible is immensely inspirational. If we can keep the power of perseverance front of mind, we may not gain results as clear as a world cup winning goal but surely the outcomes will move government forward in service of its citizens.

Leadership through Humility: In soccer, one of the most monumental statistics tracked is goal assists. Goals, yes, but goal assists are tracked with just about the same importance on teams. An assist is the player serving up the ball or passing the ball to the person that ultimately puts it in the net. Identifying the opportunity to make this assist is the game changer—an opportunity is often created from nothing. The decisions that are made on the field often benefit from leadership through humility versus bold individualism. Unless you have an all-out clear opportunity or breakaway, the norm when someone has the ball anywhere near the goal is to make sure to look up just in case a teammate around you may have a better shot than you. If someone does, you are fully expected to pass to them and not waste the shot even though it is so, so, tempting. In supporting government, I believe we often want to be that quick goal scorer, but there are tremendous benefits from making sure to look up: have the right SME review whatever you are working on, include other colleagues that could really benefit from exposure to the effort so they can lead it next time, and to lead but not always be out in front scoring the goal.

What other traits of sports apply to making government more effective? Or what traits of sports are negative that you also see hindering government?