Total Football Meets Total Enablement: Transformational Business Lessons in The Beautiful Game

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The gears started turning in my head the instant Andrew Barry mentioned the concept of Total Enablement to me. It resonated right away because I’m a soccer player, and I always have been.

…What?

What does that have to do with enablement?

Let’s back up a bit before I explain.

The Beautiful Game

Andrew and I share a love for soccer (from here on out, I’ll refer to the sport as “football” so as not to frustrate our international readers). During the World Cup in 2022, Andrew and I kept a conversation going about all things football.

Over the following months, we slowly started to unveil how relevant our knowledge of the game is to our work at Curious Lion. Then Andrew picked up a book called My Turn: A Life of Total Football, and everything started to fall into place.

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The book is an autobiography of Johan Cruyff, perhaps the most influential European footballer of the 20th century. Andrew inhaled it in a matter of days, then bought and sent me a copy!

I spent my evenings the following week devouring Cruyff’s stories about his childhood, his illustrious career, and the indelible mark he left on the world of football.

Cruyff will forever be a household name for football fans, but his legacy far exceeds the individual skill he brought to the pitch. His name has become synonymous with the concept of Total Football.

Total Football is a style of play – and more importantly, a mindset – that emphasizes empowering players to own and adapt their roles to help the team achieve its full potential.

Cruyff championed the idea that football should be a fluid, player-led endeavor in which all players are prepared to shift positions, cover for one another, and unite as a cohesive unit.

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Total Football revolutionized how the beautiful game was played and resulted in a prolonged period of dominance by any clubs Cruyff’s ideology reached.

Here’s a peek at his trophy case:

  • 3 Ballon d’Or (World Player of the Year) awards
  • 22 championship trophies across 4 leagues
  • 287 goals and 167 assists in 531 appearances
  • 1 World Cup final appearance
  • Plenty of accolades as a manager

Cruyff’s influence has only become stronger over time. Evidence of Total Football abounds in the tactics of some of the best squads, players, coaches, and managers today.

Herein lies the golden thread: Total Enablement is changing the enablement game, and Curious Lion encourages that change. We’ve taken inspiration directly from Cruyff and Total Football.

The Golden Thread

Curious Lion is on a mission to help people and teams realize the extent of their potential, then determine the behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes that will get them there. We work to deliver stellar learning experiences that transform teams.

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The concept of Total Enablement informs what we do with our clients and amongst our own team. You might be asking, what is Total Enablement?

We’ve got you covered in depth here, but in short:

Total Enablement is an intentional, continuous state of operating that sets revenue generators up for success at scale.

It unlocks tribal knowledge, codifies best practices, develops leaders, cultivates stewardship, and proactively manages change.

Cruyff’s book inspired me to think deeply about my lifelong experience as a footballer, and how it has prepared me to adopt several roles to play a part in our mission at Curious Lion.

Sport has always been a lifelong teacher of mine, and writing this article has confirmed the truth in this statement.

Now that you have some context, let me explain what football has to do with enablement.

I’ll break the definition of Total Enablement into five components, discuss each of them as they pertain to the world of football, and tie in my footballing experience to show how influential the concept of Total Football is to what we do as a company.

Unlock Tribal Knowledge

During the first part of my life I followed no philosophy, I absorbed as much as I could, I lived day to day. I did have experiences that gave me insight later on when the seeds were sown ready for harvest time. It was only later that I realized that the foundations of everything I created were laid down at that earlier time.

Hard work. Respect. Creativity. Sportsmanship. Timeliness. Fitness.

These things didn’t need explaining to me when I took the pitch as a kid. I trusted my intuition.

Some of the most revelatory sequences in sports history come from last-ditch efforts or spur-of-the-moment brilliance that seemingly couldn’t be repeated no matter what.

Cruyff realized this — the importance of natural inclinations and split decisions. Not only that, but over the course of his playing, coaching, and managing careers, he also learned how to take that inexplicable knowledge and distill it into fuel for development, for improvement.

Cruyff grew up in a tight-knit community that valued football. He was exposed to professional environments from the age of 5, as the groundskeeper for the Dutch professional football club AFC Ajax (where he would later play) was a close family friend.

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He played ball in the streets, inventing moves for which he’d later become famous. His tribal knowledge started to accrue.

We all come from unique backgrounds. We’ve all filled up our own little bags of tricks, whether it be at our jobs or in the field of play. And we can perform quite well without thinking tactically about these sorts of things.

But to enable a truly high-performing team, everyone needs a way to communicate their own tribal knowledge and access others’. Understanding the culture, history, and dynamics of the group you’re a part of is essential to the group’s effectiveness.

Total Football empowers every player to contribute their unique skills and insights to the team. By unlocking the tribal knowledge of each player, Total Football helps to develop a more dynamic and adaptable team that can respond to changing circumstances on the field.

This inspires our work at Curious Lion, as we encourage our clients to listen for and amplify tribal knowledge so everyone in their organization can benefit and improve from it.

Codify Best Practices

The key to success is to keep things simple. If you can do something with one touch, do it with one touch. If you can make a pass without taking a touch, do it. The simpler you make the game, the easier it is to play well.

Look for triangles among players all throughout the pitch. The striker is the first defender. The goalkeeper is the first attacker. Play an offside trap.

These are examples of concepts beyond the scope of tribal knowledge — tactics that level players and teams up, but don’t necessarily come naturally. They are methodologies for collaborating, strategies for adapting to varied in-game scenarios, and best practices to ensure success.

I might have been able to show up to kinder-kickers and net a couple of hat tricks per game with no formal coaching at age 6. Chalk it up to natural ability and tribal knowledge. But at age 16, the game was much more cerebral. The “team” aspect became far more important than any one player’s individual abilities.

Players on Cruyff’s teams knew the roles they played, and they knew what their teammates were responsible for, too. As Cruyff said, “We had a team of players who were not only technically gifted, but also who understood the game and each other at a deep level.”

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Total Football emphasizes the importance of creating a shared understanding of how the game should be played. By codifying best practices, coaches and players alike hold each other accountable to stay on the same page and work towards a shared goal.

At Curious Lion we’re constantly learning about codifying best practices. Both internally and with our clients, we’re in continuous pursuit of unlocking tribal knowledge and translating it into strategies to optimize performance, minimize errors, and make everything as easy as can be.

Once best practices are in place, teams and the players within them are quicker to take ownership of their roles and align with the team’s shared vision.

Develop Leaders

Leadership is not just about telling people what to do, it’s about creating a culture of trust, collaboration and excellence.

As a leader you serve by always taking responsibility.

Nearly every team I played for in my football career had rotating captains. The responsibility to lead was spread amongst the entire team, the coaching staff, and every other appendage of the organization.

This dispersed leadership helped promote cultures of accountability and responsibility, where every individual was invested in the team’s success.

We learned to take responsibility for mistakes and to learn from them. We learned to put in extra work outside of training hours and game day, to lay our egos aside to help the team improve and draw nearer to our shared vision.

Total Football needs total buy-in. Johan Cruyff wouldn’t have made history if he had pursued the limelight all for himself. All the success and glory came from his teams’ ability to hold one another accountable, to cover when players started migrating to different positions during the flow of play, and to act as leaders, stewards of the team’s philosophy.

Just the same, Totally-Enabled businesses put ownership in the hands of employees and allow them to drive positive change. By developing a sense of responsibility and dispersed leadership in our clients and in ourselves, Curious Lion strives to create cohesive, effective, Totally-Enabled teams.

Cultivate Stewardship

Whether you’re a trainer or a steward, a director or a groundsman, a commissioner or a laundry-worker, you’re Ajax. Everyone works in such a way so as to be of service to the first eleven. That way everyone is indispensable because of the part he or she plays, and the result is one club and one Ajax.

Everyone is essential. Everyone is responsible. Everyone wants to be here.

These are the mental models that took my game from good to great. They are the ideas that helped me to shed my ego on the pitch; to play for the logo, not the name on the back.

On my college team, we quoted Shakespeare in every pregame huddle:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me;
Shall be my brother

We believed that every member belonged and played a vital part in our success. There was no hint of a “first-years collect all the balls” mentality. There were no exclusive seating arrangements on bus rides to away games. No cliques. We showed up every day to build together — a band of brothers.

Total Football instills a sense of stewardship in each player, encouraging them to take responsibility for their role within the team and work together towards the common goal. Similarly, Total Enablement fosters a culture of accountability and commitment to excellence in organizations. It contributes to a more positive and productive work environment.

One of my favorite quotes from My Turn is this: “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal — but the fundamental idea is teamwork: arrive as a team, leave as a team and return home as a team.”

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Cruyff’s goal was never to become known the world over as one of the greatest footballers to have ever lived. He didn’t lace up his boots just to win titles (although the relentless drive to do so surely helped). He always wanted to play the beautiful game and create cultures of excellence that would last long after he was gone.

And he left that mark at every club he played for, coached, and managed.

This gets to the very core of why we’re in business at Curious Lion. We live and breathe positive change. We are stewards of learning cultures, stewards of Total Enablement. And we want to pass these lessons, concepts, and strategies onto our clients so that they can build a team full of passionate stewards.

Proactively Manage Change

In football, you have to be able to adapt to new situations quickly. You have to be able to change your tactics and your approach based on the opponent, the weather, and the state of the game. It’s the same in life and in business. You have to be able to adapt to change and be flexible in your approach.

Teams must be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances during a game. That’s sport in essence: a game of who-makes-the-fewest-mistakes and who-can-adjust-quicker.

Cruyff promoted the idea that football is player-first and that success depends on a team’s ability to be fluid and accountable no matter the obstacles thrown their way.

The biggest change I had to manage as a footballer came not during my playing career, but at its abrupt and unexpected end.

I was chosen as a captain of my college team going into my fourth and final year at school. Unfortunately, my captaincy coincided with the panic, closures, and regulations of the COVID pandemic.

We spent the summer in quarantine, and it was up to the group of captains to hold the team accountable for our summer training program and to keep morale high, asynchronously.

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It wasn’t until the very end of the summer that we found out our season had been canceled.

Along with the other captains, I was able to proactively manage that massive change. No matter how painful the loss of my season was, I recognized my commitment to our team’s shared goal and the role I played in reaching it.

I took the captaincy seriously and remained a part of the team, through thick and thin — through practices during which we had to wear masks, use our own balls, and stay at least six feet away from one another.

Through conditioning in preparation for seasons that would take place after I graduated, I stuck it out for the benefit of the program, for the team, for my teammates.

The following year, the team went on to make it further in the tournament than we had in all years prior. I’d never claim credit for that success, but the energy and commitment to something greater were palpable coming out of that season of adversity. The team was better for having gone through it, and I’m happy to have played my (albeit modified) part in that transformation.

Totally-Enabled organizations proactively manage change by empowering team members to adapt to changing circumstances in their work environment. And by maintaining a culture of continuous learning, organizations can equip their employees with the skills and knowledge to handle change with grace.

My role at Curious Lion has shifted quite a bit (just as my position did during my football career). It was operational and administrative in nature at the start. As needs within our company shifted, I began to lean more into my writing abilities. Now, my role is expanding and evolving further into a marketing context.

Andrew knew to send me the Cruyff book because he knew that I live and breathe the sport, and I have since I was old enough to kick a ball. He knew it would be relevant to the betterment of our entire team to have me read it. And he knew it would be a means to inspire me about developing into my role and developing the role itself.

This is proactive change management.

Conclusion

You need players who can play together, not just players who can play.

At Curious Lion, we’ve been able to draw lines between the principles of Total Football and the principles of Total Enablement, leveraging our passion for the sport to inform our ability to transform teams.

The connection between Total Football and Total Enablement is rooted in the idea of empowerment and collaboration. Total Football emphasizes the importance of players taking ownership of their roles within the team and working together to achieve a common goal. Total Enablement is about creating an environment where individuals and teams are empowered to succeed at scale.

Just as Total Football revolutionized the way the game was played, Total Enablement has the potential to transform teams and drive long-term success. Both concepts emphasize the importance of continuous learning and improvement, recognizing that success is not a one-time achievement but a lifelong journey.

In my opinion, Andrew’s sending of the Cruyff book to me was a quintessential example of Total Enablement. Andrew knows me, and he knew that the message in the book would reach me, even if neither of us could have predicted it ahead of time.

The simple act of sharing the book with me embodies each of the five components of Total Enablement.

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