by Staff reporter


Last year, I was privileged enough to have the opportunity to interview Carlo Ancelotti, one of the world’s leading football coaches. He has a golden pedigree and had won everything there was to win in the most challenging environment of European professional football.

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He had first won the prestigious European Champions League whilst coaching AC Milan at the tender age of 42. He had gone on to coach my beloved Chelsea FC, here in England, Real Madrid in Spain and had just finished a successful stint as the coach of Paris Saint-Germain in France. He had recently been appointed coach of Germany’s leading football club, Bayern Munich. He is coaching royalty.

As a taster, I enquired “when will you win the Champions League next?” He raised his famous left eyebrow and smiled, “I doubt whether I will be winning the Champions Leagues again”. The audience drew a stunned collective gasp of breath.

How could one of the world’s leading coaches front up, on camera and with a live audience admit that he wasn’t good enough?

He smiled and said in his very charming matter-of-fact way, “Winning the Champions League is now a young’s man’s game”.

He now sat upright and explained, “Look at the recent winners, apart from Sir Alex Ferguson, all the rest are in their early 40s. I won it when I was 42. Zinedine Zidane (the coach of Real Madrid) was also 41 when he won it last season.

“I am just too old at 57. I’ve become far too cautious and guarded now. Despite the fact I know it,

“I just can’t mask feeling that I have become confronted by the fear of failure. At 42, you fear nothing, you have all to prove and nothing to lose. Therefore, you throw all caution to the wind and just go for it,” he said.

This was remarkable honesty, but wasn’t he selling himself short? This appeared all too ageist both for me and our lively audience. But maybe this was not about age per se?

This might just be more about how our attitudes change with maturity.

Tough gigs

Fortune Magazine’s research shows the CEOs of the 500 largest companies in the USA have a median tenure of 4.9 years but some are new and some are in no hurry to depart.

CEOs in the UK leave faster apart from those in Brazil, Russia or India, according to a study of the world’s top 2 500 companies by PwC. UK bosses are spending 4.8 years in the top job, falling way below the UK high of 8.3 years in 2010.

Whilst this can seem short, CEOs’ staying power compares favourably with UK football managers, whose average tenure is 1.23 years.

Now that’s rapid.

Despite the obvious differences, these leadership roles share some striking similarities apart from increasingly short tenures.

They share the glare of constant publicity:

There is no hiding place when you are the CEO of a publicly listed entity. Your quarterly and annual results are there for all to see and comment on. The financial pages can be harsh and cruel, and sometimes based on the flimsiest of knowledge and with little insight into what is actually going on.

It’s probably even harsher and visible for a top football coach. Your results are on the back pages of the tabloid press every single week and if that wasn’t enough, every one of your club’s fans knows how to do your job better than you do. You are expected to engage with them, no matter how nonsensical their viewpoints.

You are seen as public property:

Both as CEO and as a leading professional football coach you have to respond to the challenges and the questioning of the media. For the CEOs, their shareholders can ask any and all questions when they see fit. You must respond to these with a sense of urgency and positively, otherwise, you and the business will suffer immediately.

As the referee blows the final whistle of the match that you as the coach have been emotionally immersed in, the camera and the microphone are instantly thrust into your face. There is no sympathy or empathy, they will ask precisely why you lost, and why you have failed? Who cares if you are humbled or humiliated?

Your compensation is public knowledge and constantly commented on:

Your (outrageous) salary and bonuses are the talk of the cafeteria, social media and the newsfeeds. You will be constantly harangued by just how much you earn compared to the lowest paid in your organisation.

There is no defence for what you earn. Engaging in this conversation has zero benefit but you and your family will continue reading that you are clearly not worth it!

It’s an unforgiving pressure cooker of an environment:

There is always someone calling for you to be fired. You rarely receive positive feedback or encouragement.

Everybody always compares you with the best who have ever run the business or the football club. No one cares that it was a completely different era then. The competitive pressures are far greater today because of the global context and the ultra-competitive environment.

“Stop moaning—you are paid handsomely to deliver”, is the usual caring retort.

The buck always stops with you:

No matter what goes wrong, it’s always your fault and why didn’t you see it coming?

Nowadays, it is no longer appropriate or acceptable to have your communications people deal with the negative ‘noise’. The cry is for the authentic leader who ‘faces the music’.

There is little pity or sympathy as you squirm uncomfortably in front of all gathered at the press conference. The media believe that their role is to hold you to account on behalf of … well, who? Is it the shareholders or fans who are demanding that you are hammered in front of the workforce you will have to motivate first thing the following morning?

Arsenal FC

I was recently asked to give a talk on leadership at Arsenal FC, at their stunning Emirates Stadium, to the top 100 of their management team. The event was led by Ivan Gazidis, the former lawyer and now CEO of Arsenal FC. Both he and the coach, Arsène Wenger, have been under untold pressure to win the Barclays Premier League and the European Champions League.

They are a tight double act with different approaches and skill sets. Ivan is never ruffled, relatively low profile and is a clear thinker. But they have striking similarities in that they are both urbane intellectuals.

Arsène has become increasingly volatile under the constant and withering put-downs by the media and most disconcertingly, even by a significant number of the club’s fans.

It has been painful and hugely unfair at times, but football clubs are ‘passion brands’. They excite and attract unconditional loyalty beyond any business brand. No matter how bad they perform, fans might stop attending but they never stop their love affair with the club. They just can’t walk away but they feel that in return for this undying loyalty, they deserve to be heard. From flying small planes with trailing banners demanding “Wenger Out” on match days, to social media sites dedicated to the removal of Wenger, it was a toxic atmosphere. He has visibly aged and has become more ratty and grumpy with the media.

There was a palpable siege mentality growing with the gathered management team. Despite the fact they had won the FA Cup for two seasons on the trot, the expectation had only been ratcheted up.

This adversarial environment benefits no one.

I experienced this again when working closely with Jim Yon Kim, President of The World Bank.

He always remained philosophical about the negative criticism. “No matter how good you think you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better.

“So, for me, the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better—because your job is to try to help everybody else get better,” he said.

Where is the humility for these leaders in the toughest of environments?

Or do they willingly accept the pressure and opprobrium by signing that financially lucrative contract? Or, on the contrary, is it the constant pressure that drives up the price businesses have to pay to attract and retain those with Arsène Wenger’s ‘never say die’ spirit and attitude?

Arsène is now 67 years old and is in his 21st year at the club and still fighting for what he believes in but it also has to be said, he is so much more cautious and guarded now than in his early buccaneering days at the club.

In the unforgettable 2003/4 Premier League season, Arsenal went through the entire season undefeated. A remarkable feat, delivered by a much younger Arsène Wenger, when he clearly cared less about the endless criticism.

Carlo went on to win the Bundesliga title with Bayern Munich and they were knocked out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals. 

René Carayol
Leadership in Sport
“Winning the Champions League is now a young’s man’s game”


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