Soccer, Fighter Planes, and Strategy

In most other countries around the world, soccer (“futbol”) is the national past time and a great source of the good kind of pride. It inspires its observers to sing national anthems, set differences aside, and salute efforts where one or many “put it on the line.” During the course of the weekend, I have been observing UEFA 2012, the European tournament held on the same four year schedule as the Olympic games.

One of the interesting things that occurs in the format of the tournament is the pairing of teams against one another wherein one appears–on paper–to have far superior credentials to another. In many cases, a starting lineup for one side can be stacked with players who have 100+ games (matches) on the international stage. With such vast experience, the veteran side enjoys a presumed advantage over the opposition. Often, the more veteran team enjoys an additional upper hand due to the superior ball-handling, striking, and passing skills of its players.

The scenario is analogous to young or smaller businesses trying to compete against prohibitively endorsed large, mature businesses. Yet, whether in futbol or in business settings, we see the underdog come out on top often enough that we realize competition is not decided through analysis and predictions. What, then, are some of the reasons that a presumably out-manned competitor emerges victorious?

If I may bring in yet another comparison without losing the train of thought, I’d like to reference the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, revived through the recent Red Tails movie produced by George Lucas. In the movie, the African-American pilots are disdained by both their own armed forces as well as the haughty Luftwaffe (German Air Force). The heroes are initially perceived as being less intelligent, having slower reflexes, and lacking the experience to get the job done of protecting U.S. bomber squadrons during the second World War strategic air campaigns to reach Berlin and help the Allied forces achieve victory. What the featured pilots bring to the air battles (at least in the movie version) are the following distinctives:

  1. They were not fighting for individual glory,
  2. They were not afraid to take reasonable risks,
  3. They were (for the most part) disciplined in their consistent approach.

In business, it is very important to observe how applying these distinct characteristics would benefit a company’s performance–whether going against peers or seemingly over-matched foes. In order to build the “esprit de corps” requisite to compete will require emotional intelligence. More self-awareness and significant amounts of empathy and self-regulation are traits that are uncommon in the masses, but very evident in those who are not selfish.

Risk taking and management of the risk-rewards trade-off is a nuance rather than the exact science some would have us to believe. As depicted both in the movie and in a game between Spain and Italy this weekend, there is a “right time” to go for the gusto. Italy was successful playing quick attacks over the top of the Spanish defense and the Red Tails had success in attacking peripheral targets after primary targets were taken out. Business strategies that include both a primary objective and additional (discretionary) targets are wise.

Finally, the commitment to the plan–a resolute determination to dismiss the criticism of others and stay focused–is vital. Don’t mistake this focus, however, for sticking to a bad idea too long. Strategies must be proven to be successful before being implemented far and wide and held up as the “best practice.” Once featured, the strategy should be re-evaluated based on results and feedback. While being pursued, however, there can be no dissension among the ranks.

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