What Soccer Captains Can Teach Us About Leadership vs. Management

Albert Camus once said, “All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” (The Algerian-born writer was, of course, referring to what we call soccer) If 22 people running between two nets with a ball can speak to Camus on a broard philosophical level I think I can earnestly say without the fear of looking simple that soccer has taught me the basics of leadership.

Soccer captains, the individuals elected to wear the yellow arm band on a team, are primarily responsible for translating the vitriolic emotions of their colleagues to the referee. They are also charged with deciding what role each player will adopt in set plays, arranging off-the-cuff defensive patterns, and keeping everyone motivated.

A captain isn’t necessarily the best player on the team. Instead, captains are diligent, emotionally strong athletes that spark action and loathe laziness. They are hard working players with work-a-day skills who lead by example.

Captains are analogues to organizational mangers if we use the language of Warren Bennis. Bennis states, “The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.” Indeed, soccer captains energize specific games and circumstances. They leave long term strategies to club owners and coaches. Captains are the dyed-in-the-wool, in the moment, leaders. They are sources of calm and composure under duress.

Captains act as intermediaries between visionary coaches and team mates. They ask, in Bennis’ phraseology, how and when and let the club owners ask what and why.

That captains exist and can be instrumental to a team’s success should teach leaders a very important lesson: managers and the strategies they employ can motivate teams quickly and effectively

Bobby Moore (1941-1993) was the youngest captain of the English national team. He would eventually help his country win the World Cup in 1966. Famed English soccer writer Paul Gardner, writes, “No wonder they made him England’s captain at 22, everyone he played with had a story about his coolness.” Gardner wasn’t speaking about his popularity, but rather Moore’s ability to keep calm “under fire.”

Moore was able to be a source of calm for his team and it helped produce results. Moore wasn’t creating new visions or supplying his teammates with detailed plans. He was making what he loved to do look easy, stress-free, and, more importantly, fun.

Good leaders can be a source of forward looking visions, but they can also take a page from a captain’s or manager’s play book. They can work hard and set examples to follow, display calm, and provide reassurance.

Regardless of how or where you draw the distinction between leader and manager soccer captains prove that good leadership stems from hard work, getting dirty, and keeping collected under fire. You don’t just need a yellow arm band to manage.

Picture Credit: Flawka

William Briggs

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