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A McKinsey Company
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A McKinsey Company
Facilitators Dialogues
Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders
Mike Carson
Facilitators Dialogues
Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders

The role of the head coach or “manager” of an elite professional football team is one of the most demanding and unforgiving leadership positions imaginable. Under constant scrutiny from supporters and detractors, they are praised and vilified from post rooms to board rooms – and most of us doing the talking seem to think we know their work better than they do.  Their words are analysed; they are looked to in crises; they are expected to deliver all the time; and average tenure in top leagues typically runs at around 18 months.  Success though confers on them lasting fame and an enormous sense of satisfaction.  And success requires from them a blend of human leadership where empathy meets with steel; the ability to analyse information, sense situations and make good decisions in slow and fast environments; and a self-awareness that allows them to role model precisely the behaviours and underpinning mindsets and philosophies that they hope for from their teams. 

The Euros – the great tournament of European footballing nations – comes around every four years.  This year it is one year later than planned due to COVID-19 restrictions; and for the first time is spread over multiple countries as co-hosts.  Now with all except the final match decided, the tournament has been widely acclaimed for both its quality and its character.  And over four fascinating weeks, many great stories of leadership have been unfolding.

It takes a particular kind of leadership to turn around a broken or damaged situation.  Roberto Mancini, manager of the Italian national team, is no stranger to demanding environments.  In 2009 he took over at Manchester City where the team was underperforming relative to the ambitions of their new owner, Sheikh Mansour.  It took him 3 years, but in 2012 Mancini’s City won the Premier League title, blowing away the club’s reputation for faded glory and serial under-achievement.  Mancini is a man of considerable ability and style, honed in Italy’s Serie A where he partnered with lifelong friend Gianluca Vialli at Sampdoria.  Known as the “goal twins”, they carried all before them in the late 80s.  He combines flair, honesty, passion and directness with a deep sense of purpose: “I have a great gift from my Father, and I must use it well.”   There is an element of “do what I tell you” to Mancini’s style – which works well so long as the team is growing and improving, getting to new places and scaling new heights.  Asked to take the helm of his native Italy for whom he played with real success 30 years ago, he was dropped in to lead the Azzurri out of an unprecedented era of disappointment: they had failed even to qualify for the FIFA World Cup tournament in 2018.  Since September of that year, Italy have not lost a single match – and after 33 games unbeaten now find themselves in the Euros final against England.  Surprise package, perhaps?  Many did not think they would get this far.  Those of us who know our Mancini are less surprised……

One of the unexpected features of this wonderful Euros tournament has been the quality of the refereeing. Referees play a huge role in football, and most often it is a thankless one.  They get noticed only when things go wrong – glaring errors or confrontations.  They are rarely supported by commentators, or the fans or coaches of the teams involved. The best referee performances are ones where no-one notices the official – he or she keeps the game flowing with a blend of clarity, rapid decision making, courage, balance and inner strength.  The refereeing in this tournament has been remarkable for its steadiness. There have been few dramas, few disputed decisions – instead a sense of trust in the officials that is emerging even among fans.  The referees are not out there for fame – they are there to do their job well, and to keep the whole tournament in flow.  I am grateful for this excellent cohort of officials, and for the many unseen leaders in our world who create level playing fields that allow the rest of us to go about our daily business and enjoy our lives.

Perhaps the most powerful human story of the Euros 2020 is that of the 29-year-old Danish midfielder, Christian Eriksen.  On Day 2 and in only the second match of the tournament playing for Denmark against Finland, Eriksen went to receive a ball from a throw-in and unaccountably collapsed onto the ground. His colleagues, clearly in distress made a ring of privacy around him as the team medics administered emergency treatments.  It was terrifying to watch, and for what must have been 15 minutes, there was no movement except a twitch in his legs when the defibrillator was applied. Very many watching it feared that this brilliant young man had died on the football field.  The players were distraught, and in the stadium and around the world all thoughts of tribalism and competitiveness were gone in an instant.  Here was quite simply a matter of life and death.  And coming as it did at such a globally sensitive era for public health, it stopped many of us in our tracks.  What really matters?  Perspective is an indispensable attribute for leadership.

When some minutes after Eriksen had been carried out of the stadium, Reuters posted a picture of him sitting up in his stretcher, it seemed nothing short of a miracle.  The wonderful news is that Eriksen will make a full recovery after a cardiac arrest, and is already well enough to attend the final as a guest of UEFA at Wembley on Sunday.

And that final so nearly featured Denmark!  Beaten unsurprisingly in the match against Finland and again by a powerful Belgian side, they rallied behind a new-found sense of purpose to defeat Russia, Wales and the Czech Republic before finally succumbing only after extra-time to an England side with a momentum, determination and motivation of their own.  When the purpose of a team or institution is suddenly heightened and so clearly altruistic, people begin to talk the language of service, of honour and of destiny instead of winning and losing.  Before their semi-final, England Captain Harry Kane presented the Danish Captain Simon Kjaer with an England no10 shirt bearing Eriksen’s name and signed by the whole squad.  Purpose inspires acts of great significance and beauty.  Alone, it is of course no guarantee of ultimate success – and England were probably the better side on the night; but this Danish team produced something remarkable to remind us that purpose – together with perspective – has a huge part to play.

Gareth Southgate has achieved the seemingly impossible feat of guiding an England team to a major tournament final for the first time in 55 years.  As I write, they have never yet won the European crown –maybe this will be their year and football will indeed come home. Something has changed – but what is it?  What is Southgate bringing to the team that so many before him have not?  Why are sports writers in high quality journals hailing him as a “superb leader”?

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Southgate is the apparent absence of ego.  He needs no praise, nor is he affected by criticism (unless it is professional feedback).  He makes team selection based on reason, experience, sound advice and footballing judgement.  He plays an altruistic, almost servant role as coach of the national team.  After his side’s 4-0 victory over Ukraine in the quarter-finals, he shared in interview that his greatest concern each match is how to leave out three great players from his squad of 26: “When they are all so committed and all playing so well, how do you DO that?”  There is an air of integrity and congruence about this man. While others in the game live the cosmopolitan life of clubs and fast cars, Southgate lives a family life in the countryside of Yorkshire, with his wife of nearly 24 years and their daughter and son of 19 and 15.  When he answers questions from the press and television, he responds thoughtfully, directly and with respect – more often than not using the name of the reporter. This is an intelligent, humble man who gives each person real attention.  Former Manchester United Captain Roy Keane was asked after the victory over Denmark why Southgate could be so nice and yet succeed at this level.  He replied that he “can be nasty also”.  I agree with the sentiment but not at all with the language. It is not about nice, and it is not about nasty. Southgate is a leader who combines empathy with steel.  Every player is important, and he will take time with every member of the squad. But when the time comes, he will make the choice that best serves the team.

Finally, he is a leader who looks backward only long enough to learn the lessons – then he looks to the path ahead, with conviction and courage.  For many years, Southgate was known as the player whose penalty miss in the shootout against Germany cost England a place in the Euros final in 1996 (also in London). Three years ago, England (playing in the World Cup last 16) won their first ever penalty shoot-out since that date – and it came under Southgate’s leadership.  Just last week, Southgate’s England defeated Germany in the last 16 here – their first competitive knockout win against them since 1966.  Sports writers have made much of how Southgate has laid his ghosts to rest.  Maybe he does feel that way – I am not sure.  But I am absolutely certain that his own and his team’s performances are discontinuous with history.  Losing to Denmark’s wonder goal after 30 minutes, this side did not flinch but instead took the game to their opponents and turned it around.  Is football coming home at last?  With this leader – you bet it is.

A final thought – on diversity.  Many of us watching this England side are sure they are no “one hit wonder.”  The average age of the squad is just 25 – and the pipeline of talent is full to bursting.  Why now and why not before? It seems the Premier League is finally paying a dividend to its host nation. Known globally as the most spectacular, talented and competitive league in the world, England’s home competition has been delivering the highest quality of football year on year.  Why then has it taken so long for the national side to benefit? When the question was asked 20 years ago, the typical answer sounded like, “Well, the best players from all over the world come here, then go back and play for their own countries.  English players can barely get a look-in.”  How mindsets can change in a generation!  What is now becoming truly valued in the great teams of the Premier League is diversity. Diversity of thinking, diversity of culture, diversity of background, diversity of talent.

Shockingly, there is still racism in football; some of it overt, displayed by a mindless few; much of it unconscious, displayed by many who may have decent intention, but have not taken time to consider their impact on others.  The excellent Raheem Sterling MBE (England’s player of the tournament so far) and others like him are inspirationally leading from the front against intolerance; but the effect they are having goes wider still.  Premier League clubs now welcome managers, coaches, and staff – both playing and non playing – from societies and nations across the world.  So young English players – in both the men’s and women’s games – get to play and train with the very best; and the next generation will be the strongest the country has ever produced.

There is still some way to go.  The sight of the great former Arsenal and France player Patrick Viera being welcomed to London club Crystal Palace as their manager is a very welcome one – and a stark reminder of how few BAME managers there are at the top of world football.

Still, the message of this young England team is clear.  When we truly embrace diversity in our businesses, institutions, communities and families, the world can only get stronger, more balanced and more beautiful.


Mike Carson is a Partner at McKinsey & Co and one of the founders of Aberkyn.  His book, The Manager – Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders is published by Bloomsbury.