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Leadership Lessons from the U.S. World Cup Campaign

Bob Bradley head coach of USA embraces Ricardo Clark of the United States after he was substituted during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between USA and Ghana at Royal Bafokeng Stadium on June 26, 2010 in Rustenburg, South Africa.
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Bob Bradley head coach of USA embraces Ricardo Clark of the United States after he was substituted during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between USA and Ghana at Royal Bafokeng Stadium on June 26, 2010 in Rustenburg, South Africa.

The U.S. soccer team's run in the World Cup came to an agonizing conclusion against Ghana on Saturday,but unlike many of the major European nations competing, the team can at least head home with their heads held high.

And none more so than coach Bob Bradley, who has offered myriad leadership lessons over the course of the two weeks the U.S. team was involved at the world's most-watched sporting event.

Here are just a few of them:

Team spirit trumps individual talent

No-one needs reminding what letter's missing from the word "team," right? While the U.S. entered the World Cup with players who are certainly held in reasonably high regard even in soccer-crazy countries—Landon Donovanand Clint Dempseybeing the two most notable names—none comes close to earning the "best player in the world" honors. But the team outlasted some of the biggest names in the game, including reigning champions Italy and the team they beat in the final—France. Both entered the tournament boasting long records of success and veritable galaxies of stars at their disposal, but failed to get their personnel pulling in the same direction. Contrast their abject failure with the sterling effort Bradley managed to wring out of a less talented squad, simply by letting each individual know his responsibilities, and by fostering a strong team spirit.

It's never too late

There's a reason the U.S. team earned the moniker "The Comeback Kings." Out of four games, they were behind in three, and yet didn't lose one in normal time—and came through in that memorable moment against Algeria in the 93rd minute. This was a team that just didn't know when to quit, and the motivation—no to mention the high levels of fitness required—had to come from Bradley and the expectations he and his coaching staff set.

Again, this attitude is something that just didn't exist within some of the top sides already eliminated—with France in particular showing the sort of dysfunction that can occur when a leader loses the trust of his team.

Admit your mistakes…then fix them

One of the key moments in Saturday's game against Ghana was Bradley's decision to remove Ricardo Clark after just 30 minutes. Granted, a error by Clark early in the game handed Ghana the opening goal, but the decision was more a reflection that Bradley had got his tactics wrong than any sort of judgment on Clark's performance. By recognizing his error and choosing to act on it early, Bradley gave his team every opportunity to get back into the game and compete.

And make no mistake: substitutions that early in a soccer game are extremely unusual, except where injury has occurred.

One of the hardest things for anyone in a leadership position to do is to publicly admit an error. Accordingly, many coaches in similar situations would have waited until half time to make any changes. Bradley's decision, then, is all the more impressive for the self-criticism it must have involved.

Additionally, the way Bradley handled a clearly devastated Clark—making time to explain his decision as the player came off the field—spoke volumes about his commitment to clear communication.

Like many organizations that prosper under good leadership, the U.S. will likely struggle to hold onto Bradley now that he has established his credentials so firmly in a global spotlight. The good news in that is, if he does go elsewhere, he'll leave behind a blueprint for success that any successor can follow.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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