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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

How Did Landon Donovan Become America’s First World-Class Soccer Player?

As the minutes ticked away in the U.S.’ decisive World Cup match against Algeria, U.S. superstar Landon Donovan was determined not to permit a repeat of the U.S. 2006 World Cup disaster, when the Americans went home without a single victory.  As his teammates felt their 2010 dreams slipping away, Donovan knew the soccer hopes of the nation rested on his shoulder. This time he could not fail.

As the U.S. saw chance after chance denied by the tenacious Algerian defenders and a lone goal disallowed on a missed call by the referee, even the neutral announcers declared the U.S. deserved to win. This time around an older and wiser Landon Donovan knew deserving success and achieving it are two different things.

Taking an outlet pass from his keeper, he raced down the hundred meter field, looking more like a track star than the crafty midfielder he is, and played the ball forward to teammate Jozi Altidore. When the Algerian keeper pushed away yet another shot, Donovan didn’t hold back. Moving forward toward the goal, he pounced on the loose ball and drove into the back of the net. Pandemonium erupted in the stadium and throughout the U.S. as the entire team piled on top of Donovan’s prostrate body.

When the game ended two minutes later, Donovan buried his head in tears. All he could say to the announcer was “We worked so hard the last four years, we couldn’t let this opportunity slip away.”

What enabled Landon Donovan to rise to this leadership moment? The answers can be found in the disappointments he has suffered from the 2006 letdown, to disappointments playing in Germany and a failed marriage in 2009.

Since he was a teenager, soccer watchers have seen Donovan’s potential to become America’s first world-class soccer player and fulfill the dreams of American soccer lovers. After a solid debut as a 20-year-old on the 2002 U.S. World Cup team that reached the quarter-finals, Donovan was expected to lead the Americans to even greater success in 2006.

It never happened. More than any sporting event in the world, the World Cup is an intense national competition that requires both mental and physical toughness. In 2006, Donovan hadn’t learned what that required. Nor was he prepared to step up to the leadership role expected by his teammates and his country. 

Needing a win against Ghana to advance to the Round of 16, the U.S. instead lost the match and was eliminated.  Donovan and his teammates earned only a single point in three games.  Donovan himself had a rough ride, as he went scoreless and was criticized by U.S. fans for a soft, directionless performance.   

Things didn’t get any easier for Donovan after the Cup.  He endured difficult stints playing professional soccer in Germany where he only occasionally saw time on the pitch.  He endured a difficult breakup with his wife and additional professional strife when news broke of a rift with world-renowned David Beckham, Donovan’s L.A. Galaxy teammate.

But Donovan did more than just “play through” the tough times.  He dug deep into the root cause of his problems, and used his self-exploration to grow as a player, a person, and a leader.  He even took up meditation to become more introspective.

Donovan told FanHouse.com that his recent struggles made him realize that all-important leadership lesson: the buck stops with him.  “I am in control of what I do,” Donovan said, “and before, I thought different things determined how I would play or how I would respond or how I would act on the field.” 

That sort of take-charge leadership style has propelled Donovan to new heights.  He received the MLS MVP award in 2009 and won the championship with the Galaxy.  On the world stage last week, as the U.S. stared at a 2-0 deficit at halftime against Slovenia, Donovan’s new calm and resolve showed through. In the third minute of the second half, he ignited a U.S. rally with a perfectly slotted ball from an impossible angle. When the U.S.’ winning goal was called by another erroneous call, he shrugged it off, saying, “We will focus on what we can control.”

Landon Donovan has learned from the searing pain of his personal crucibles. Rather than deny his disappointments, instead he used them to become a more mature leader, ready for the burdens of leadership placed on his shoulders by his teammates and his country. As the pressure mounted, he played through fatigue and disappointment and somehow kept going at a tireless rate.

When the opportunity presented itself, he didn’t flinch or choke. As he said, “in that instant, time just stopped,” no doubt as he recognized the chance to overcome the pain of the past and achieve his goal. Afterward he even thanked his ex-wife on national television for her help.

Was Donovan lucky? Not exactly, unless you believe (as I do) in Oprah Winfrey’s definition of luck as “preparation meeting opportunity.”

Now Donovan leads the U.S. team against Ghana on Saturday in the playoff round, with a chance to revenge the difficult 2006 loss. He is a battle-tested leader, who has learned to share the pressure, excitement, and joy of the World Cup with his teammates and now-loyal fans.  As the Italian and French superstars head for home, Landon Donovan has learned from his crucible and is ready to lead with confidence.