Sports leadership is not only achieved through technique, but also through empathy, personality and moral authority.

George Best’s Manchester United, Maradona’s Argentina, Sacchi’s Milan, Guardiola’s Barcelona, Mourinho’s Inter… every team has its own guru, its embodiment for the fans and the media. There are many ways of heading a winning project. And it is also possible to have more than one leader in the same team and for them to collaborate equally, each on his or her own way, to the group’s success.

At the end, a football team is no different from a small society, with mechanisms that go beyond the sport and include social, psychological and emotional aspects. These are so important that you can find a different leader for each dynamic. “A sports project is the result of human resources, actions and roles focused to achieve a concrete goal”, explains Fabio Ciuffini, sports psychologist. “That is precisely why the presence of leaders do benefit a team, given that the rest of the group shares the same objective”.

“A leader HAS to activate the potential of the collective, making cohesion of all its members possible”

Which are the charchteristics of these leading roles? “A leader is someone supposed to activate the potential of the collective, making cohesion and the participation of all its members possible. That means to put the weight on his or her shoulders and much more. The most important thing for a leader is to stimulate every individual to be proactive and steer the efforts towards a common goal”, says the member of Calcio Scouting, an Italian project aimed to promote the growth of a footballer from his or her psychological aspects.

In football, the first and more evident leadership that can be exerted is the one that comes from the technique. The best players become an example for the others and, with their talent, they push the team towards success. This is the case of Maradona, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Totti. They are footballers capable to win matches and know how to motivate their teammates just through their skills on the playing ground. Some of them may not show a big personality outside the pitch and others may not be examples of generosity or team spirit, but their excellent skills are enough to lead a team.

Pepe Reina hace gala de su habilidad como 'speaker' tras ganar el Mundial de 2010.
Pepe Reina (left) makes a speech after winning the 2010 South Africa World Cup.

Another type of leader is the ‘group leader’. “This is the one that talks and jokes, or the one who makes the speeches in the key moments”, explains Andrés Raya, codirector of the People Leadership and Team Management in ESADE. His words describe faithfully the role of Pepe Reina with the Spanish National Team. When he was 35 years old, the current Milan goalkeeper was called in 2018 to play his fourth World Cup. It was common knowledge that he was included on the Team because of his capacity of making the group to stick together and not because his skills as a goalkeeper. Tactics ant techinique are not everything in football.

A different kind of leader is the one by title: the captain. “He is the one who wears the armband, the one who speaks with the referee and who is introduced to the public as the symbol of the team”, explains Raya. The captain must be an example for the teammates because of his or her effort, responsibility, communication and moral authority. Characteristics that describe players like Gerrard, Mascherano or Sergio Ramos. In this case, seniority is important.

“LEADERS can be a negative influence when THEY DON’T put the common goals before THEIR own”

In a different way, coaches are also natural leaders of a team. If a right back player can enjoy a brilliant football career without being a leader, the manager cannot. Besides his or her tactical job, his or her main task is precisely to promote team spirit and solidarity among players. This goal can be achieved through charisma and authority, like Capello, Ferguson or Mourinho. But it is also possible through dialogue and empathy, as proved by Del Bosque, Zidane or Ancelotti.

If there are different ways of leading and different leaders in a team, it is key for them not to cannibalize each other. “A leader can be a negative influence when he or she uses his or her charisma in a dysfunctional way. This is, against the original team goals”, says Ciuffini. “It is a very common situation in football. It happens, for example, when the group leader pushes the team against the coach authority”. In such cases, the problem resides in not respecting one of the main rules of football leadership: to put the common goals before your own.

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