If you are interested in leadership, and the impact leaders can have on organisations, then a great thing to observe is the world of professional football and the impact of the manager.
OK, I am biased, and still emotionally raw, so this won’t be the most objective piece of writing in the world, but hear me out.
Marcelo Bielsa was the manager of Leeds United for three-and-a-half years. His recent dismissal triggered unprecedented displays of anger and heartbreak for someone most of us have never met or even heard speak English, and all the more surprising considering that us Yorkshire folk are not exactly famous for our demonstrative approach to human emotions.
The point I want to make about his leadership isn’t the onfield success – the beautiful sparkling football and promotion to the Premier League – because other managers have achieved impressive sporting results too (as his critics never tire of reminding us). The point I want to make is how he transformed an organisation and connected emotionally with the club, the fans and the wider city on a level none of us have ever known before.
He transcended the function of his role (the football) and embodied values that were hopeful and pure, giving us something unique and more important to care about than a game with some goals in it. He was visionary without ever really mentioning a vision; he just lived it, with humilty and grace, and it captured our hearts.
How did he do it?
Competence and credibility
It was all built on him clearly knowing what he was doing.
Had he failed on the football pitch, nothing else would have mattered, everything else he achieved was built on this rock solid foundation of getting the basics of his job right.
From that very first game when we spanked Stoke City with a fluid attacking onslaught of energy and pizzaz, suddenly a team of midtable journeyman who had bored the pants off us for season after season were playing lively exciting football, scoring incredible goals and winning games.
Belief in his people
Bielsa achieved everything with mainly the same squad of players who had been languishing in mid-table lower-division misery for years. The players were lost and bored, going nowhere slowly. Bielsa didn’t throw them out and demand multiple big-money signings like most managers do, he invested in the people he had and turned them into a bunch of winners and, in some cases, international stars.
This is a great example of a learning mindset, believing in potential, not in us being stuck with fixed and limited abilities. Since his departure, many of the players have shared how much he meant to them and how he transformed their careers.
It was Nelson Mandela who 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.
Never did Bielsa criticise a player, the referee or even VAR, despite having numerous ocassions to do all three. He never stormed on to the pitch and screamed at the referee, never bemoaned another ridiculous error from Stockley Park, never sloped his shoulders and pointed at an obviously sub-par performance on the pitch. It was always him when things went wrong, and always the players when things went right.
Hard work and dedication
He was famously hard-working, and although there is a danger of leaders leading the way by working their socks off and expecting others to do the same – setting too fast a pace for others to keep up is not good leadership – his dedication and commitment were second-to-none and, coupled with his attention to detail, set a tone of total professionalism across the club.
It wasn’t just the first team that was tranformed, it was every team and the training ground too.
Humility and grace
This was probably the biggest part of who he was, the most unique part of his identity, and what touched people the most.
He famously lived in a flat above a shop in Wetherby (and was criticised for doing so by one particular pundit), walked to the training ground every day, was often found poring over his laptop in Costa Coffee or doing his shopping in Morrisons, and whenever a fan wanted a photo or an autograph, he always had time for them.
He brought out the best in so many – the hosts of the Leeds United Podcast The Square Ball joked that he made them – us – want to be better people, but they weren’t really joking, he really did sprinkle all he touched with magic dust.
Bielsa was an intense individual, and overdid some of these strengths to the point of stubbornness and inflexibility, but he commanded a loyalty and a sense of belonging like no one I’ve ever known.
The famous quote from Maya Angelou says it all:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel
We will never forget how Marcelo Bielsa made us feel.