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What Match of the Day teaches us about leadership


Nigel Paine dons his metaphorical football boots and gets strategic about leadership.

I know this article appears to be about football, but it is not, it is about strategic leadership. So bear with me for a few paragraphs. 
I was watching Chelsea play Arsenal at the weekend. Drogba had scored twice and then landed awkwardly on his left leg after avoiding a tackle, and then started to limp badly.
The commentators were immediately drawn to Drogba, and the camera followed him limping round the field at each break in the action. Was he okay? Would he have to go off? The commentators bantered amongst themselves as the rest of the game continued around Drogba who took no part in the play.
Then I noticed Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea Manager, standing on the touchline following the game with great focus and attention. At the point the cameras were on Ancelotti, Drogba started to limp off the pitch towards his Manager, so the cameras lingered.
As Drogba got to the touch line, two Chelsea staff in tracksuits immediately surrounded Drogba and began talking to him and looking at his knee. All of this was happening less than two feet from Ancelotti. What was his reaction? He never once took his eyes off the game. He did not even acknowledge Drogba’s presence, and he certainly did not get involved in the melee around him. His focus was on the bigger picture and nothing distracted him from it.
For me it was an object lesson in being strategic. A lesser football manager would have been concerned at the fate of his star player and would have (quite literally) taken his eyes off the ball. Ancelotti relied on his staff to deal with the immediate issue and maintained a view of the whole field in front of him. If there had been a serious problem, no doubt, his staff would have informed him, and he would have dealt with the issue. In the event Drogba went back onto the pitch a couple of minutes later and looked fine. That small incident taught me 10 lessons which I will share with you.

Ten lessons about being strategic

  • Once you get buried in the detail, you cannot see the whole picture
  •  It is compelling and emotionally alluring to leap in and see what is happening but that is not behaving strategically
  •  Trust is critical: you have staff who can feed you the information you need to make the right decision, do not try to do their job for them
  •  People grow when they are trusted and given scope to do their job
  •  It is hard to build an effective team when, at the point when it gets difficult, the leader rushes in and takes over
  •  It is critical for the leader to maintain perspective when there are short-term problems
  •  Everyone likes to see a leader demonstrating cool, commanding vision and not panic
  •  Intervening at too low a level has no impact whatsoever
  •  You can rely on your team to let you know when you need to get involved and that point should recede as they gain confidence and competence
  •  Without knowing anything more, you should be able to tell the difference immediately between a leader in control with a strategic focus and the leader who flays wildly between strategic thought and tactical intervention. It is the former who gives us confidence
Most leaders have no idea of the impression they make on their team! And there is a deep instinct to bury themselves in detail and get involved in whatever short-term crisis befalls them. The impression this gives is not one that instils confidence but one that engenders panic. 
At this critical juncture when many organisations are reviewing their spending on learning and looking at value for money and impact, there is a tendency to hunker down with the team, and check the courses, the administration and the detail. The strategic leader, in contrast at this time, will be out, working across the whole organisation and getting a sense of the mood/issues/run of events so that he or she can make the most effective decisions when required.
If there is a mantra for the present, it is NOT: I can fix it, but I can understand it.
Nigel Paine is a coach, mentor, writer, broadcaster and keynote speaker of international acclaim. He is currently working in Europe, Brazil, the US and Australia on a variety of assignments, that hinge around making work more creative, innovative and aspirational and making workplaces more conversational, team-based and knowledge sharing. You can read his blog at or follow him on Twitter:

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