IE Focus | By John A. Clendenin, Professor at IE Business School

The triumph of Spain in the World Cup can give us some excellent lessons in management, with its focus on talent, team work and a commitment to society.For the first time this year, Spain united its many talented players to win the FIFA World Cup soccer championship. Hundreds of thousands of fans lined Madrid´s streets to celebrate and welcome their heroes home after the team beat the Netherlands 1-0 on a summer Sunday in extra time. Those throngs were cheering after months of political unrest, economic gloom, a debt crisis, 20% unemployment and fighting among nationalist regions for greater autonomy from the central government. 

Spain´s team always had great talent, but bringing it all together had been elusive. What lessons can Spain and the world take away from the World Cup victory? Ultimately, the alignment of institutional, team and individual goals was what brought success. With a mission to play creatively in the World Cup–to pass, to move, to think, to act rather than react–Spain found a winning approach. What can this leadership example of excellence through ultimate teamwork teach us about collaborating for economic gain as the world economy regains momentum?

The heart of the Spanish team lives in a small but famed youth academy in Barcelona called La Masia. There, nine of Spain´s players spent years nurturing individual styles founded on exceptional technique. We should learn from their long-term commitment. The school, started in 1979, has developed athletes who learn supreme artistry that exhausts and demoralizes opponents as they control the ball. Consider, as you ponder leadership and dedication, that Andrés Iniesta, who scored the extra-time winner for Spain in the World Cup final against the Netherlands, joined the academy as a 12-year-old from his Albacete junior club. Do corporations in today´s marketspace devotedly grow their best talent from within? Or is there the false illusion that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence? Do we make a commitment to our people as our best resource?

The best-led institution in sports is Barcelona’s city team, FC Barcelona. The FC Barcelona slogan is “Mes que un club!”–More than a club. The team competes on the field of play, of course, but it also vibrates, every day, to the rhythm of its people´s concerns. It supports their sense of caring and humanitarianism. “Behind our shield, there is a heart beating,” Joan Gamper, FC Barcelona’s founder, has said The club contributes 0.7% of its income to the FC Barcelona Foundation, setting up international cooperation programs for development. It supports the U.N.´s Millennium Development Goals and has made a commitment to Unicef´s humanitarian aid programs with the donation of one and a half million euros. It even pays to wear the Unicef logo on its shirts, where other teams get paid for everything on their uniforms. What a pleasure to know that winning the World Cup, arguably the most prized trophy in sports, can be done with commitment, integrity and a “beating heart.”

In Spain during the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco (1939-1975), Catalans, Basques and others were forbidden to speak or publish books in their non-Spanish languages. The World Cup win has led to the rare sight of people in Barcelona waving the Spanish flag alongside Catalonia´s own red and yellow one. Enthusiasm welled up in unlikely places as Spanish players from Catalonia (Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique) and the Basque region (Xabi Alonso) all played and won together. How can Spain capitalize on this tenuous patriotism and seize the moment to unite more fully under its single flag? Who will lead a country depressed by nationalist factionalism?

Head coach Vicente Del Bosque led his team to the lowest-scoring World Cup championship in history, with just eight goals. The team was content to defend first and seize infrequent opportunities to score. It structured a seamless relationship between defense and attack, with defenders and strikers equally capable of handling the ball and moving the ball around the field. The low scoring added tension, but Spain was usually in such complete control of the match that that scoring never represented how the team dominated its opponents.