Soccer Helped Me See the Difference Between Leading and Managing

Soccer Helped Me See the Difference Between Leading and Managing

By Zach Maurin

I spent most of the last 10 years as an executive director or co-founder of several different organizations. A few years in I realized I was a decent leader, but a poor manager. Soccer helped me understand the difference and make important changes. 

As a young co-founder and executive director right out of college, I focused on leadership and ignored management. Not on purpose, I just never thought intentionally about it. I’m not even sure I knew it was a thing or that it was different from leadership. I more or less just thought: we’ve identified a problem, we have a theory about a solution, let’s go do it.

As we grew, shrunk in tough economy, grew again, and dealt with lots of things outside of our control, my lack of intentional attention to management became apparent to me and my colleagues. They wanted more clarity about how decisions were made (and who can make them), how they were doing in certain areas and how they could improve, there were areas of inefficiency or confusion -- the list goes on.

Importantly, all of this clarification they sought happened within the context of knowing our vision, knowing our goals, and knowing their jobs. The mistake I made was assuming that knowing those things would mean everything else would fall into place, and everyone would just figure it out. But good leadership with mediocre management was insufficient.

In addition to being a social (and now commercial) entrepreneur, I’m a soccer fan and player. I coached youth, played in high school, on a club team in college, and in local rec leagues. And soccer helped me see my management gap because the big things in soccer do not happen without the methodical practice and execution of the small things. There is no option. You don’t even think about this as a choice.

This concrete and visual experience to draw from as a player and youth coach made my organizational management weaknesses abundantly clear.

Think about playing or coaching soccer without practicing the following:

  • Formation adjustments based on abilities of your team and the approach of your opponent
  • Adjusting the levels of defensive and offensive pressure based on the score
  • Teaching young players to glance up before receiving the ball, enabling a quick decision once they have it
  • Practicing your weak foot
  • Empowering players to make decisions on the field when the coach cannot
  • Corner kicks and free kicks

Any coach who didn’t teach these things would be fired and any player who didn’t practice them would be benched. The only way to win games and championships is the methodical practice of and commitment to the small things.

Yet in organizations we have the tendency to not to address and practice the small things with habitual commitment. We’re focused on our goals, the next meeting, the next proposal, the growing inbox. At least that’s a problem I faced.

For a longtime what I failed to realize is that managing the small stuff is the work of leaders and leadership. It’s not someone else’s job or something you do when you finally have a few hours. 

Doing the small stuff is obvious in soccer, but less so in organizations. Or perhaps it’s known but less practiced. From my personal reflection, I fell short as a manager for these reasons:

  1. Inexperience -- early in my career I conflated leadership and management
  2. Personality -- I like to just figure things out and I like other people to just do the same
  3. Fear of being perceived as a micromanager
  4. Management is hard, tedious, and time consuming

Soccer helped me see just how oversimplified and/or wrong this thinking was, and that managing was something that had to be a daily priority.

When I was a coach, I would never have assumed a player would repetitiously practice her left foot without guidance, structure, and encouragement. When I was playing club soccer in college, I would have never felt like I was micromanaging when I pulled a teammate aside and told him to time his runs better (or if he did the same to me).

The context in which management was obvious and consistent helped me do better in a context where it was not. And even when I learned to do better, soccer was a reminder that management cannot be an afterthought.

To get tactical, here are some things I’ve learned to prioritize as a manager and wish I had done earlier in my career (and in some cases still struggle with): 

  • Methodically working with staff members to improve upon a high-leverage weakness over the period of 6-12 months
  • Train teams how to give and receive feedback in real-time
  • Intentionally develop culture to aggressively challenge and debate peers’ ideas without it being personal
  • Defining who makes decisions on what
  • How to run effective meetings with time dedicated to align on clear next steps
  • How to run the first five minutes of a meeting/presentation with an external audience

In soccer, you spend lots of time on small things because it’s the only way to win and because there is structured time to work on them -- practices, which have a specific start time, end time, location, and clarity about who is in charge (all things managers of organizations could do, too).

In organizations, the motivation or discipline can be harder to find because days are filled with short-term needs. Here’s what helped me realize that managers should be more like coaches and players when it comes to habitualizing the small stuff: ignoring it in the short-term will be far more time-consuming in the long-term and the organization will fall short.

Strong, active management will increase productivity, retention, and impact. And when those improve, turnover decreases and managers spend less time headhunting and interviewing, and more time doing work; more productivity means more impact; more impact makes for happier staff and better culture. It’s a virtuous cycle that makes managing such a great investment of a leader’s time every single day.  

Managing an organization like I practiced or coached soccer is what led me to realize my weaknesses as a manager/leader. It’s a great reminder that the process and commitment around the small things is the only way to do big things.

A few of my favorite management books and articles that emphasize tactical advice and lessons:

The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Managing to Change the World by Alison Green and Jerry Hauser

High Output Management by Andy Grove

“How to coach teammates: A key responsibility of effective leaders” by Justin Rosenstein & Carly Schwartz

Zach Maurin is a co-founder of ServeNext and the former executive director of ServiceNation and Service Year Alliance. He coached youth soccer for over 10 years and played on George Washington University’s club soccer team. He’s the founder of a new company, Storied Hats. Follow Zach on Twitter @zmaurin.

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