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Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat – 7 leadership lessons from the America’s Cup

In one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history, Oracle Team USA overhauled an 8-1 deficit to beat Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup decider in San Francisco yesterday.  How did they turn around a seemingly impossible position to triumph – and what can we all learn from it?

Seven things we’ve learned:

1. Clear vision. Team USA had a very clear purpose – to win the America’s Cup. Even when they lost 8 of the first 9 races the vision remained the same. Winning and losing in sport is very clear cut. What is winning in business though? It’s not so clear cut. Nevertheless, the vision has to be clear enough that the team can pursue it.
2. Belief. Even when the position was seemingly hopeless Team USA believed. They didn’t give up. The moment your team accepts defeat, it’s over. It’s not over til it’s over. Even when the situation appears hopeless, it’s not – unless the team gives up. For another example of this – watch the youtube film of British athlete Christine Ohuruogu beating Amantle Monsho in the 400 metres final at the 2013 World Championships. With 100 metres left she was 10 metres adrift, with 10 metres left she was still behind, but on the line she caught her competitor and won gold.
3. Face reality. Team USA acknowledged that things weren’t working as they intended and made changes. One critical change was bringing in Sir Ben Ainslie as tactician in place of American veteran John Kostecki. The change was instrumental in the team’s resurgence. As Einstein said one definition of insanityB is: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Difficult as they can be, changes are sometimes necessary.
4. Focus on improvement. Oracle Team USA’s shore team apparently spent hours every night studying film of the races, moment by moment, and making tweaks and changes to improve the speed of the boat. Over the course of the series it got quicker. Team New Zealand’s didn’t, highlighted by the winning margin in the final race. Team New Zealand couldn’t compete. The cumulative impact of lots of tiny improvements is usually greater than finding one big change – because often there isn’t a big thing to find.
5. Preparation. When the chips are down and the team needs to produce peak performance levels, it has to be automatic. Top sportspeople always report that the victory was earned through training and practice. When things are tough it’s tempting to focus on what others are doing to be ahead but instead it’s important to focus on you. Compete with others but focus on you.
6. A catalyst. All great sporting comebacks seem to have an individual who inspires others and sparks the change. Ben Ainslie for Oracle Team USA, Ian Poulter for Team Europe at Medinah, Steven Gerrard for Liverpool in Istanbul. Their actions, their example sparks change.
7. Critical mass. Once the spark has been fired, others need to join the movement so that the fire spreads and takes hold. There’s a point at which a critical mass is reached and the team as a whole mobilises. The power of the doubting Thomases is replaced by the power of believers.

Oh, and there’s something else worth remembering. Teams lose when they think they’re already won. When Manchester United won the European Champions League in 1999, scoring twice in the final two minutes to turn around a 1-0 deficit, the Bayern Munich players were already celebrating. When Christine Ohuruogu won her gold medal (see above), Amantle Montsho thought she had won and eased up on the line. Complacency often kills victory.

What other leadership lessons have you taken from great sporting comebacks?