Real Leaders

What Leaders Can Learn from Maradona

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 27: A woman and a girl walk by a mural of Diego Maradona on November 27, 2020 in Avellaneda, Buenos Aires Province, Argentina. He is considered among the best footballers in history and lead his national team to the World Cup in 1986. President of Argentina Alberto Fernandez declared three days of national mourning. (Photo by Marcos Brindicci/Getty Images)

While everyone else on the field was playing soccer, Diego Maradona was performing art.

Consider the famous “Goal of the Century” during the 1986 World Cup. At minute 55 of the Argentina vs. England match, Maradona received a pass on the Argentine end of the field and swiftly and deftly makes his way to the English side, eluding the defenders and goalkeeper to kick the ball into the goal. All along, he keeps the ball so close it’s as if it were tied to his left foot. He is always one or two steps ahead of his rivals, almost in another dimension. He is fully present, in his natural environment — the soccer field — enjoying and expressing himself.

Had they not seen it with their own eyes, most people would have said that a goal like that was impossible, especially during a World Cup against a high-performing team such as England. But Maradona’s mindset on the field was different. Diego, as most Argentines call him, allowed himself to explore and unleash his full creativity on the field, pushing the boundaries as a player.

Maradona connected with his exploration mindset. UC Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik talks about this mindset as typical of our early childhood, when we first explore the world to gather information. Here, we live fully in the present moment: we are enchanted by the nuances and details of our environment and completely open to new ideas. On the other hand, as adults, we tend to adopt an exploitation mindset where we work to accomplish a task within the rules and conventions of society. That is, we exploit the data we already have in service of a task at hand. We tend to focus on the objective more than being present.

The most innovative entrepreneurs and leaders take a Maradona-like approach. They manage to combine both their exploration and exploitation mindsets. They understand that they need to score a goal to win the game. They know the rules of the game inside and out, even when their purpose is to change it. But they can also be fully present: to listen, connect with others, be open to new ideas, and go beyond their comfort zones. Unlike many adults; they continue to explore.

Thinking about Maradona’s mindset when he was at his best as a soccer player, we can highlight a few lessons for leaders and entrepreneurs.

Connect with Your Passion

Maradona found his passion as a little kid when he played ball on the dirt fields of Villa Fiorito, the slum where he was born. For many, it takes longer to find their passion. But when you find it, you get the drive to go the extra mile.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Finding your passion is not something that happens overnight and stays with you forever. It needs to be nurtured over time. As you practice, you get better, and enjoy it more. Maradona was obsessed with soccer. Even though he had natural talent, he would practice longer hours than anybody else. His incredible shots with his left leg were not the product of divine inspiration. They were the fruits of long hours of training.

Exercise Generosity and Foster Trust

Almost everyone who played alongside Maradona described him as a thoughtful leader who had their back. Even his competitors emphasized how caring he was with his peers. After Maradona’s death, a former colleague said he would miss Diego, the human being behind the player, “Especially the calls that always came after losses. Never after the triumphs. He knew that after the triumphs, we didn’t need phone calls. In difficult moments he was always there. After the defeats and in difficult moments, he always told me: ‘Don’t forget that you are the best.’” Maradona emphasized his connection with others. No matter how smart or well prepared you are, you cannot do it all yourself as a leader. You need others to trust you, work with you, and go the extra mile to help you.

Balance Your Exploration and Exploitation Mindsets

When we are young, the exploration mentality causes us always to try new things without worrying about the consequences. Our parents generally offer us security, but they also help define the scope of our exploration. As we become adults, this exploring and risk-taking mentality is also a critical factor that allows us to innovate and excel. Of course, we also need the other mentality, the more practical side, which focuses on results, social rules and conventions.

On the soccer field, Maradona had both an exploitation and exploration mentality. He knew the rules of the game. But he gave free rein to his exploration, too. Through his years of fame and fortune, he could not strike the same balance in his personal life. But without a doubt, as a player, he knew and mastered these two mindsets better than anyone else.

This dynamic between the exploration and exploitation mindsets also applies to business leadership. If we think of entrepreneurial leaders like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, we can see how they knew the rules of the game but also felt free to innovate and go further.

Getting this balance right is the art of leadership.

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