The 2018 World Cup was a wild one. If you're not a fan of the world's most popular sport, picture college basketball's March Madness just on a bigger field of play. And if you're not a sports fan, well, stick around anyway, because this year's cup yielded an important lesson in what it takes to succeed in this wildly unpredictable world in which we all now live and work.

A Peerless Team Success Factor: Identity

Typical world cups are low on drama and high on expectations. But this time around the World Cup didn't follow a predictable pattern. While true on many levels, performance relative to what the prognosticators expected to happen stood out. Favorites both individual and teams faded early and often. But more surprising, upstarts repeatedly put on shows of guts, skill, and determination. This not only resulted in wins, but also had commentators tossing out long planned scripts for who to talk about, how, and why. Suddenly the game was something quite different than they expected or were used to.

One afternoon I happened to catch a broadcast in the middle of just such a dynamic. One announcer asked another about the odds of a particular long shot team that had been stunning everyone continuing to advance. In a rare moment of twenty-first century 24/7 reporting, the anchor actually paused to think before he spoke. He then began with this observation:

"The toughest thing is to have an identity."

It was an insight with implications and value reaching far beyond a single team, pursuit, or time. His point was this - no matter your assets or the odds, there is something deeply powerful about knowing and consciously seeking to cultivate who you are, an investment that pays dividends in how you show up to do whatever it is you do.

The Difficulty Of Accounting For Success If You're Just Counting

It's worth noting that his answer had balance. He acknowledge that on a pure statistical basis the upstart team was a long shot. Their defense had a lower skill rating than half the teams in the tournament... and yet somehow they had held opponents to a paltry 3 goals in 5 games. They had no star scorer either... but 7 separate players had combined for 10 goals, a figure not only high enough to win, but also a strength powerful enough to keep opponents guessing as to which player posed the greatest scoring threat.

What was it that accounted for the team's surprising success? After all, 5 wins hardly struck anyone as a simply fluke. But the typical elements that announcers, fans, the press, and even many teams were in the habit of crediting simply didn't match up this time. To the commentator at least, it came down to a clear understanding across the entire team of not simply who they were, but what they stood for and what they wanted to achieve - not just overall, but game-by-game, opponent-by-opponent. Each player, the announcer sensed, had a clear understanding of what he and every single teammate had to contribute. Together they used that knowledge to do the one thing every team that wants to succeed today must deftly master: how to adapt. Rather than rely unbendingly on the knowable, the team tailored itself to the circumstances they actually faced, some better and some worse than anticipated. More striking, they did so fluidly and fluently. It appeared they just knew when and how and did it to enviable effect.

The New 21st Century Game Plan: Cultural Clarity

Ever-shifting conditions now characterize every environment in which we work, play, and live, and because they do, adaptability is what we most need. What enables it? While many things certainly come into play, at the heart of any successful team is a strong and clear culture. And at the heart of a robust and vibrant culture is identity, both individual and collective. It sounds simple, but somehow we are missing it.

A 2017 study found that 70 percent of companies will eventually face the impediment of unengaged employees. In that study, a lack of transparency and unclear goals and roles were identified as culprits. But think further, beyond the stats and the typical commentary. Each of these reasons is a symptom of the larger issue of unclear identity. The problem isn't just at the player level either. It impacts and indeed starts at the top. In their work with executives across sectors, Harvard researchers Nick Craig and Scott A. Snook have consistently found that fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose, and hardly any have a clear plan for translating purpose into action. Put another way, they lack clear identity and how to put it to advantageous use. The researchers note that at the very least this limits the aspirations of these leaders and therefore their accomplishments over time. But the impact on their ability to lead and motivate others to achieve individually and as a team is undeniable. The negative impact can only worsen when unexpected crisis or opportunity suddenly appears.

How To Take The First Step

In the years I taught entrepreneurship to college and graduate students I used to teach the lesson of identity. It naturally resonated with that audience, individuals who intended to go out in the world and upend the playing field with their big ideas and game changing views of how to do things. But where a keen sense of identity and putting it at the heart of what you do might once have been the more likely providence of disruptive founders, today the environment itself is disruptive, and there are few things upon which you can rely and navigate by. As the World Cup competition this summer reminded us and as I used to teach my students, it's hard to advance let alone win if you can't complete this simple statement:

I am _______.