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Sorry, Messi fans. Football is a weak-link team sport.

Weak-link versus Strong-link teams

Is Messi the Greatest of All Time? I don't know, but now that he has won a world cup with Argentina, he truly deserves his place amongst the footballing legends.

Did Messi win the world cup for Argentina?

Well, no. Of course not. To me, that is obvious.

Football (or soccer, if you prefer) is a team sport.

There are eleven players per side on the pitch at any one time. The whole squad is over twenty players. And then you have the numerous people off the field, the various coaches, the nutritionists, the physios and trainers who enable the players to reach their peak performance when it matters most.

Even if we ignore the ancillary staff, I still don't believe one football player can be responsible for a team doing well in a league or tournament. Football is different from basketball which only has five on-field players. Basketball is a strong-link team sport, whereas football is a weak-link team sport.

Let's unpick that and explain what I mean.


My first exposure to weak versus strong-link teams was from a book by David Sally and Chris Anderson (The Numbers Game) - Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong.

The authors asked what matters more if you want to build an excellent football team.

How good your best player is, or how good is your worst player?

Based on Sally and Anderson's research - with football, it's the worst player that is the most important because "...mistakes turn out to be a very important part of soccer as a team sport." The weakest players on the pitch more often make mistakes. The team's worst member can cancel out the best, most talented player.

Basketball is the opposite end of the spectrum. With basketball, it doesn't matter how good your fifth player is. How good your superstar player is what matters. Basketball is, therefore, a strong-link game.

"If you want to build a team for success", Sally and Anderson say, "you need to look less at your strongest links and more at your weakest ones. It is there that a team's destiny is determined, whether it will go down in history or be forever considered a failure. And that makes a football team really rather like a NASA space shuttle."

Rubber O-rings were designed to seal the tiny gaps between the stages of the booster rockets that would lift the Space Shuttle Challenger into the cold morning sky in 1986. Unfortunately, the rings froze in the abnormally cold overnight temperatures in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rubber could not maintain its integrity and allowed hot gases to escape, eventually causing an explosion and the tragedy that caused the deaths of all seven crew on board. The failure of one small part caused a sophisticated, complex, multi-hundred-million-dollar machine to malfunction.

The O-ring was the weakest link in a complex system.

Are you operating in a weak-link team or business where the "malfunctioning part" can cause expensive mistakes? Can a human error, a poorly thought-out process, or ambiguous communication between teams offset the wins created by a star salesperson?

Talking about salespeople. In the book "The Challenger Sale", the authors recommend, based on their research into relative sales performance, that coaching should be invested in the core, as this will have the most significant positive impact.

The Challenger Sale - Coaching the Core

They write, "with already high performers, they are only looking for slight, incremental improvements beyond their current level. But if you're a core performer, the impact from coaching has a significant impact on your performance."

Rather than continuing to exclusively prioritise the investment of scarce Learning & Development budgets in the already high-performers, the ROI may be higher if, instead, we were to direct more of it towards the weak links and the core or middle majority of performers.

As the authors of "4 Ways Top Talent is Destroying Your Teams" write, "the talent management techniques that lead to hiring and promoting high-performing leaders work against nurturing high-performing teams." They point to the "sin of commission", which involves building the top leadership teams by hiring, training, and promoting people who appear to fit the company's competency models. i.e. focusing exclusively on the top performers. This approach creates problems that can damage your teams and business performance, such as:

  • Cloning - by the time people make it to the senior levels, they tend to be much more similar than different in how they think, talk and act. They lack diversity, a difference of opinion and perspective.

  • Artificial Harmony - when the need to get along trumps the need to raise difficult issues and hold peers accountable, artificial harmony reigns. Senior leadership meetings will not deal with inappropriate behaviour or hold members responsible for performance shortfalls.

  • Myopia - successful people can be guilty of viewing issues through the lens of how they individually contribute to the organisation's success rather than how the team contributed.

Somewhere during the typical talent management journey, we need to remember that leadership is a team sport. So no, Messi didn't win the world cup. The team, including the weakest link and the core/middle majority, won it alongside the GOAT. And that should be the same in business too.


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