June 13, 2024

To Have a Sporting Chance of Victory, Europeans Should Learn from Elite Teams

AP Photo/Scanpix
New Zealand's flanker and captain Richie McCaw leads a celebratory Haka after winning the final match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between New Zealand and Australia.
New Zealand's flanker and captain Richie McCaw leads a celebratory Haka after winning the final match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between New Zealand and Australia.

Despite the mantra-like incantations of continental unity, and its deep institutional ties, Europe is still far less than the sum of its geopolitical parts — to its own detriment and that of its allies.

This must change. To win in Ukraine, ensure a Europe safe for democracy, and help the free world prevail in the wider systemic competition against authoritarian regimes, Europeans need to start genuinely playing as an elite team.

The continent’s relative decline (due to the rise of others) has left too many European leaders thinking like also-rans, coasting as they let others take the strain or seemingly welcoming their twilight years with equanimity, rather than striving for exceptional performance. Democracies can’t afford that. The historical anomaly of democracies’ dominance only came about by being the best. It is high time to recover our winning mentality.

The good news is that some in Europe — not least Estonia — have already upped their game. The Baltic states and others have committed to Ukraine’s victory, spent large proportions of GDP on defence, pioneered weapons deliveries to Kyiv, rhetorically put Russia on the back foot, urged allies to do more, and stood up for Taiwan against China.

Yet, in a diplomatic culture structured by a preference for lowest-common-denominator unity, these efforts have not always been recognised for what they are: stirring acts of leadership and solid forms of teamwork. To rise to the geopolitical challenge we face, key players in Europe — especially Germany — need to overturn some counterproductive dogmas and rethink their own contributions.

They should take inspiration from elite teams in sports. This is not to trivialise geopolitics — where the stakes and consequences are far higher — but rather to explore the transferability of lessons from a different, yet still intense, arena of competition.

Leading political strategists like Alastair Campbell have long espoused such crossover wisdom, while Sam Walker’s The Captain Class has drawn from management literature and resonated in military circles but rarely penetrated international politics. Here, I distil some key insights from Walker’s book to showcase the value of broadening our horizons in order to improve our geopolitical team play.

Harmony is Overrated & Stars Don’t Make Great Captains

We often hear that European unity has surprised Vladimir Putin and done wonders for Ukraine. Except it hasn’t. Collectively, Europe has been too slow to arm Ukraine and too soft on Russia. Moreover, unity hasn’t yet delivered the re-armament that Europe needs to protect itself.

The progress Europe has made has, in fact, been driven by a small group of countries, which have set the pace, driven the agenda, and dragged the others along with them. Arguing that their approach serves Europe’s fundamental interests, they have led by example, even when it has meant ruffling feathers. Refusing to settle for lowest-common-denominator unity, they put team goals — victory in Ukraine, defeat for Russia, security for democracies in Europe and around the world — first.

This avant-garde have been accused of recklessness, rocking the boat, or dragging their teammates into trouble by picking fights they expect others to win — whereas they have actually been engaged in the best kinds of teamwork. Yet, the Baltic states’ principled positions on Taiwan, sanction enforcement, the need for Ukrainian victory, and rapid EU and NATO enlargement have disquieted rather than inspired Berlin and other capitals.

As Walker argues, “tranquillity isn’t more important than truth.” A salutary example is that of Philipp Lahm. Before he captained Bayern Munich, he broke the code by criticising the team. Lahm laid bare the need for a new philosophy, a clear identity, and the players to implement it, incurring the wrath of Bayern’s board and being punished for his transgression. But he was right and, even though Lahm was also heavily criticised by former Bayern captains, the board knew it. They began introducing the changes he had called for — and Bayern started to win big.

Lahm initiated what management theorist Karen Jehn calls a “task conflict” rather than a “personality” conflict, offering constructive alternatives to a failing way. Without his intervention, Bayern could have been stuck in a rut and would not have addressed inherited thinking and complacency — and failing to make the necessary change.

Since 2008, Europe has found itself in a similar position, but only in the last two years has it started to adapt to the new realities. And still, there is a tendency to default to old ways, such as relying on the Franco-German motor rather than encouraging more diffused leadership. The need to change, despite considerable success, in order to prevent decline or make the leap from good to great brings us to another common misnomer.

By 1990, the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan was established as one of the greatest individual players in basketball history. But, with him as their sole captain, the team consistently failed to win an NBA championship. It was only when the unheralded Bill Cartwright became co-captain and helped set a different, more supportive tone for teammates that the Bulls began their golden era — as Jordan eventually acknowledged. In football, Walker highlights similar dynamics between Zinedine Zidane and Didiers Deschamps (France 1998-2000) and Lionel Messi and Carles Puyol (Barcelona 2008-2013).

The lesson for European security is that the most accomplished player has no special entitlement to be captain or set the tone. This is a mistake often made by Europeans: looking to their largest states, especially Germany, and expecting a certain kind of leadership — and by Germans who sometimes assume they have a natural right to lead or at least to set the pace and tone for the team as its biggest economy. This does not serve European democracies’ deep collective interests.

Thankfully, Walker shows there are better ways to drive team play — and other roles that team members can assume.

Doggedness: Commitment to Team and Victory

Relentless commitment to the cause even when faced with overwhelming odds or pain, is Walker’s first characteristic of elite team leadership. His examples include: the young Puyol’s tenacious shackling of ‘galactico’ Luis Figo and New Zealand rugby player Buck Shelford shrugging off severe injury to not only carry on playing but take the fight to a physically dominant French side.

These players sustained this approach, leading elite runs for their teams over several years. The players’ commitment helped set the standard for and inspire their teammates to greater heights, but it also required their teammates to recognise and respond to what they were doing.

In European security, the example is clear: Ukrainians’ determination to win has inspired people and politicians across the democratic world. This has contributed to a level of support that, even if it is still not enough, has far outstripped the expectations of many experts back in the early months of 2022.

Others too have shown their tenacity. Denmark’s can-do approach has seen the country take a lead in the F-16 coalition and give away all of its artillery and ammunition while urging others to do the same. Czechia has consistently found ways to do more: from sending the first Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) to Ukraine in April 2022, to innovatively finding hundreds of thousands of 155mm-shells in March 2024, just when Russia seemed set to lock in its firepower advantage and Ukrainian morale needed a boost.

Even though they reveal (by comparison) other states’ less proactive approaches, these two examples are relatively uncontroversial. However, they have not, yet, sparked widespread emulation that could make a real difference for Ukraine and European security. Nor are Denmark or Czechia now recognised as leaders in European security, deferred to by teammates. Ukraine is recognised as a leader by some but is treated as a supplicant by others who demand ‘gratitude.’

Players of FC Shakhtar Donetsk (front) and FC Chornomorets Odesa appear on the pitch before the postponed Ukrainian Premier League Round 12 match at the Livyi Bereh (Left Bank) Stadium, Kyiv, on 1 May 2024. ZUMA Press/Scanpix

Pushing Boundaries and Bending Rules

Another type of team leadership — stretching the rules — may attract more ire. Walker cites the Cuban volleyball team, led by Mireya Luis whose hostile approach may have got them into brawls but also got them back on top after a severe dip in form; and another New Zealand rugby captain, Richie McCaw, who gained notoriety for his commitment to the game’s ‘dark arts,’ infuriating opponents but demonstrating (to his own team) his will to win.

Several European governments and their leaders have demonstrated similar qualities since (and in some cases before) Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, blurring the lines between Lahm-like criticism of team tactics and the ‘intelligent fouls’ embraced by McCaw, Deschamps, and others. They test the habitual bounds of conduct between allies and push to reinterpret international law, institutional rules, and purpose, with implications for their teammates.

Defying the population-based hierarchies of European and international politics, Baltic politicians such as Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis refuse to sugar-coat the Russian and Chinese threats — or allies need to do more to address them. Latvia’s former Defence Minister Artis Pabriks punctured detached western European complacency, telling an audience in Berlin “We are ready to die for freedom” before pointedly asking: “Are you?” With her country having put materiel and money where its mouth is, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas felt confident enough to chide the US for the uncertainty it was creating in the broader democratic team down.

Poland pushed the envelope by sending Mig-29 jets to Ukraine and backing up the Czechs in sending Soviet-designed MBTs, as well as helping “free the Leopards,” piling pressure on by committing to send their German-made tanks regardless of Berlin’s position. The UK and France have also gone further than others (especially in Berlin) thought prudent by sending tanks and, later, cruise missiles.

Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was one of the strongest voices for Ukraine’s victory. More recently, French President Emmanuel Macron has upped the rhetorical ante when speculating on the need for NATO states’ ground troops to be sent to Ukraine. As well as signalling resolve and creating constructive strategic ambiguity, Macron asserted that this is no time for cowardice and, like former UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace, explicitly criticised Berlin’s foot-dragging. This isolated German Chancellor Olaf Scholz who has not endorsed Ukraine’s victory.

Carrying Water: Serving to Lead?

“Not fair!” say Scholz and his allies, pointing to Germany’s role as the leading European supporter of Ukraine in absolute financial terms, never mind how long this took or what it is composed of. Looking to sports, they may have a point.

Walker lauds some leaders’ willingness to toil in the background, to do the unglamorous yet essential work needed to win. Dismissed by flashier teammates as a mere “water carrier,” the kind of player you can find “on any street corner,” Deschamps actually embraced the role and accepted that Zidane would grab the headlines and the glory, if it meant the team would win.

Walker also points to US soccer captain Carla Overbeck, the All Blacks’ Shelford and McCaw, and the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan, who voluntarily took a pay cut to allow the team to sign and pay more to others who would help them win. These “servant leaders” did what was needed for their teams to win, or ensured that others could, often suppressing their own fame along the way.

But is this really what Germany is doing? Serving to lead, doing the essential, unflashy dirty work to let others shine in the service of the team goal? Is Germany really the Deschamps to France’s Zidane, the McCaw to the UK’s Dan Carter or Puyol to Estonia’s Messi?

No. And the reason is simple. Scholz may be right that Germany’s contribution is not appreciated by many — but that is not because Berlin is playing a servant-leader role. It is because he and his government are not living up to their responsibility for European security and, crucially, because they have not committed to Ukraine’s victory. They are not perceived as sharing or striving for the team goal of securing Europe, the route to which runs through victory in Ukraine.

Far from being seen as a servant leader, Germany’s very place in the team is questioned — to the detriment of both Germans and other Europeans who know that having the continent’s biggest economy firmly on board would help them win. If Berlin throws its weight behind Ukraine’s victory and to addressing the single biggest threat to European security, it would get more credit for what it is doing rather than being upbraided for what it isn’t.

Embracing the team goal is clearly in Germany’s security and reputational interest, but it should also work on other aspects of its team game. Rather than assuming its output merits a leadership role, and then doing what Michael Jordan did by belittling those he felt beneath him, Scholz should seek alternate inspiration. Sticking with basketball, he could learn from the Spurs’ leading scorer, David Robinson, who let Duncan, a more effective leader and superb communicator set the tone for the team, while he got on with scoring.

Germany could seek to fulfil either role, though both require adaption. Servant leadership may suit Berlin well, but if it chooses that path, Germany’s leaders should remember that even Deschamps stepped up to score occasionally, when others didn’t — and sending Taurus missiles, for example, would be a goal the whole team would cheer. And Germany should more overtly celebrate (rather than criticise or lament) the goals and other contributions of its teammates.

Addressing Europe’s Strategic Deficit Starts with the Team

Good team play means acting wholeheartedly on the realisation that your own interests can best be pursued as part of a team; variously leading and being led; and finding the best ways, some of them counterintuitive, to leverage your own qualities and contribute to the collective goal. But it also means recognising this in your teammates.

For all the warranted talk of Europe needing to get strategic, this will neither be meaningful nor worthwhile until which ‘Europe’ that refers to is clear to all concerned. Europeans need to work out who should develop strategy, for whom and for what. In short, they need to work out who is on their team – and how to get to the required, elite standard.

That does not preclude playing and pulling our weight in other, broader Transatlantic of Free World teams. To win the systemic competition, Europe’s democracies need to make sure we are good enough team players to make our team play complementary and mutually reinforcing.

This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference special issue of ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

Filed under: Commentary