Leadership Lessons-The Football Way


Simplistically speaking, ‘Leadership’ is defined as a process where an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. Of the several theories that have been propounded on leadership, trait and behavioural theories are majorly applicable directly from a footballing perspective. The trait theory stresses on the characteristics of leaders – both successful and unsuccessful – and is used to predict leadership effectiveness. The resulting lists of traits are then compared to those of potential leaders to assess their likelihood of success or failure. Behavioural theories of leadership focus on specific behaviours of a leader as that is considered to be the best predictor of his leadership influences and as a result, is the best determinant of his leadership success.

As the legendary Bill Shankly had famously quoted, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…it is much, much more important than that”. This shows that the world’s most followed game requires strong leadership to sustain its quality and intensity. And this is precisely what the essay tries to unearth.

It’s much, much more important than that!

Leadership and Football – The Universal Bonding

The celebrated South African legend Nelson Mandela once famously said, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership”. In the world of football, Mandela’s views are so very apt because a true leader, be he a captain or a coach, always has to put his team before him, and if at any point of time matters deteriorate, must intervene to infuse inspiration for the team. In a team game like football, where there is very little time to think and act; leadership is generally attributed to the skills of a coach who watches the proceedings from the sidelines. This is because he has the time to execute his plans and the resources to implement them.

Leadership concepts and their applicability in football

There are many theories of leadership explained by various experts over a period of time. Here’s analyzing some of them with examples from the world of football, to help acquire a clearer picture. 

Leader-Member Relations (LMR) theory 

This refers to the degree of mutual trust, respect and confidence between the leader and the followers. LMR is directly proportional to the behavioural relationships that exist in a group between the leaders and the followers. It has been proven through research that perceived communication satisfaction is crucial to employee productivity, job satisfaction job performance, and organizational effectiveness. As a manager, it is imperative that you convey your vision to your players which is why most foreign coaches have a translator who can communicate with the players in languages they comprehend. 

Right communication is the key
For instance, Jose Mourinho was Bobby Robson’s interpreter at Barcelona and he has reiterated many times that Sir Bobby wanted his players to understand the impact of his coaching which is why an interpreter was always essential.

‘Concentrating on the Basics’ approach

Successful organizations evolve with better implementation of fundamental attributes. Not always will you have a team that is full of supremely talented individuals. A successful team depends on how strong a co-ordination exists among its members. Even an ordinary team can pull off extraordinary results if it is guided by a strong leader who understands his team’s limitations and can leverage the strengths.

An apt example will be the Greek team of 2004 that won the Euro under the charismatic manager Otto Rehhagel, who was later made an honorary Greek citizen. Such were his leadership traits that he managed to mobilize an ordinary Greek team to beat the Giants of Europe at their own game. Discipline coupled with self-belief was all that was required for Rehhagel to come up with the hitherto unthinkable. A leader instils the belief in his men that they can win – and this is what separates them from ordinary men.

The Greek team of 2004 with the spoils of a meticulously planned victory

To beat the defending champions, the best team in the tournament and the hosts in three successive rounds, all by identical scores, simply don’t happen by accident. It can only take place through immense tactical wisdom and methodical implementation of tactics to suit each game. Rehhagel was a master visionary who took a relatively unknown outfit to global fame owing to his “fundamentally correct” approach.

Leader-Member Exchange theory

LMX (Leader-Member Exchange) theory analyses leadership on the basis of interactions and establishment of a two-way relationship between the leaders and the followers. The concept of reciprocal relationship maintenance by the leaders is stressed on by this theory. Some teams function on a smooth flow of communication from the leader to the rest of the team, which is why the foundation of team unity is extremely strong.  For example, the world’s indisputably best team, Barcelona has a young Pep Guardiola as its coach who understands team dynamics and provides his team with the kind of freedom which very few coaches can actually afford to.

Does the best team require a different managerial approach to hold the highest rank in the world?

The Barcelona coaching system is an amazing lesson in leadership management where they groom players from their academy and they automatically get inducted in the primary team. One such prodigy is Lionel Messi and the rest as they say is history.

The Manager is everything

Perhaps in no other sport is the role of a coach as important as in a game of football. A manager has to undergo constant stressful and turbulent situations. They are always on the “hot seat”, putting in their maximum efforts to ensure the best achievable results as they are publicly held responsible for a team’s performance. As a team becomes more and more popular, the ‘Sword of Damocles’ tend to hang precariously over a manager’s head. This explains why we have frequent sackings of coaches in both club as well as international football. However, that does not hold true for one and all; there have been legendary managers who have been inspirational figures and are constantly studied for their leadership traits. Legends such as Vittorio Pozzo, Rinus Michels, Matt Busby and Franz Beckenbaur among a host of other geniuses have masterminded teams and inspired generations by their tactics. Perhaps the greatest modern day icon in this category is Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson who just completed 25 years at one of the world’s most famous clubs, as its patron leader. Sir Ferguson is worshipped by United, and as David Beckham had realized during his exit from the team – there can only be one Don at United: Sir Alex Ferguson.

Rule of the Red Monarch: Iron Fist Management

He has built a team from scratch and his youthful exuberance at an age of close-to-70 is what wins him universal respect. There are reasons why people idolize Sir Ferguson – he will leave a legacy of leadership and vision that will be hard to emulate for generations.

You do not necessarily need an official tag to be a leader

Normally all great leaders have at some point of time held official positions like a captain or a coach. Yet there are some who by sheer ability and calmness of mind can garner respect from their team-mates because they do not get weighed down by the occasion and continue to inspire their team-mates. For example, consider the case of the victorious French team of the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Cup. Whenever the team was in disarray and was unable to penetrate into the opponent’s half, they simply passed on the ball to their talismanic mid-fielder, Zinedine Zidane who has this uncanny ability to create an opportunity out of any situation. Zidane made the ball talk and his team-mates worshipped him. Although Didier Deschamps was the captain of the French Team, Zidane was always their leader and remained so throughout his career, the latter half being officially a captain.

The Alpha-Male takes charge

The reason Zidane was revered all through his playing career both at the international and club level was that he understood his role in the team and never disrespected his “post”. Some critics say that he should not have head-butted Marco Materazzi, which is cited by many experts as the prime reason for France’s loss to Italy in the 2006 FIFA World Cup final. But with evidences showing signs of racism in the Italian player’s abuse which led to the incident in the first place, this one-off case can well be excused. Zidane’s influence on his team was so high that during his absence due to injury in the 2002 World Cup Group Stages, France looked incapable of scoring even a single goal. They were badly in need of inspiration which they always found in the form of Zidane whenever things became tight. Without him, the defending champions ignominiously exited in the first round. Once back in charge, the maestro single-handedly inspired an average French team to the final in the 2006 World Cup.  A leader’s significance is sometimes realised when he is not around. This has been the case with the French National Team post Zidane – they simply look just another team playing football with talented individuals looking for some divine inspiration.  If that inspiration is not the captain, it has to be the coach. France has been looking for either since Zidane’s exit and still hasn’t found one matching up to him.

How do you earn that ‘respect’?

If somebody wants to be respected as a leader, then it is imperative he concentrate on:

  • What he is
  • What he knows
  • What he does

What makes a person want to follow a leader?

People want to be guided by those they respect and who have a clear sense of direction. To gain respect, the “been there, done that” aura has to be prevalent. A sense of direction is achieved by conveying a strong vision of the future.

It is extremely important for a leader to understand his limitations. Reason being, not all individuals can be charismatic geniuses and single-handedly lead teams to victories. Not all can be like Diego Maradona – a man who almost single-handedly inspired Argentina to World Cup Glory. An even greater achievement of Maradona lies for his club side Napoli who he led to two Scudettas and a UEFA Cup. The only reason we remember Napoli is because of Maradona. Such was his charisma that the Neapolitan fans in the famous semi-final of the 1990 World Cup partially supported Argentina against Italy as Maradona was playing the match.

The genius leads the way

This photograph so beautifully conveys the Maradona effect on opposing teams. In a crucial World Cup match, instead of blocking him, his opponents were in awe of his magic, the charisma of an incomparable leader. Such leaders are not found in plentitude. You would probably come across only one in your lifetime.

We cannot try and become a Maradona but we can definitely try and become an Otto Rehhagel because the latter shows that discipline and vision can create leaders in us and lead us to glory.

As the saying goes, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. So is leadership.


Deepanjan Deb is currently pursuing his MBA from XLRI Jamshedpur. He has previously worked as a Marketing Analyst of TCS. He has covered the 2010 FIFA World Cup, T-20 World Cup and IPL 2009 as an analyst for the Ananda Bazar Patrika group venture –