5 Lessons of Leadership from Football Legends

5 Lessons of Leadership from Football Legends

Have you listened to the podcast The Rest is Football?

Any interest in football (soccer in North America)?

Ever wonder what 4 ex-footballers could teach you about leadership (and life)?

I never thought I’d cry during a football podcast, and I did.

I started listening to this podcast a couple of months ago to follow a sport again (given baseball and hockey get no coverage here, my sport fix has been barren for years).

The first episode featuring Thierry Henry was about more than football, it was a masterclass in leadership and life lessons.

Here is a snapshot of those insights, regardless of your opinion of football or footballers.

Emotions are Integral to Performance

As much as leaders want to say that business is rational, factual and to not get emotional, emotions are ever present in work.

Thierry Henry, famous former French striker and now coach to France’s under-21’s, said:

“I realized later on that at the time…I was scared [while playing]. These emotions are normal emotions of a human being. I couldn’t say I was scared [in the locker room}. I didn’t know how it would go down. I lied.”

Thierry performed to the highest level, he is thought of as one of the greatest strikers of all time, and one of the greatest players in Premier League history.

And he was scared.

At that time, and in that space, he didn’t feel safe to share those emotions. He lied.

What might your team members be hiding?

What emotions might your staff be feeling?

What could you do to create psychological safety in your workplace?

Allowing those emotions to be shared is key to unleashing people’s potential.

If someone is scared, they won’t be doing their best work. They will be trying to hide the fact they are scared – energy and effort that could be going into their performance.

Ask people how they feel. Don’t accept ok, fine, good. Those aren’t emotions.

You can find an emotion or feelings wheel online to help with building your emotional literacy.

If you think someone is frustrated, sad or anger – ask them “My sense is you might be frustrated, are you?” It isn’t about you being ‘right’, it’s about helping the other person express their feelings.

Leaders Strive for Self-Awareness and Growth Mindset

“I’m in tune with myself right now and I’m still trying to, to be better.” – Thierry Henry

Knowing ourselves is one of the four quadrants of Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

By knowing ourselves, what drives us, what motivates us, what scares us, what we hide, we can interact better with others. By knowing ourselves we can be more effective in how we communicate, lead, and motivate others.

EQ Leadership Model

As a coach and EQ leadership trainer I’m probably biased in wanting people to have a growth mindset and strive to be a better version of themselves.

I take this seriously myself as a professional. I do professional development for maintaining my accreditation. I do personal development to ensure my ‘stuff’ doesn’t get projected on those with whom I’m working.

Professor Carol Dweck defined the growth mindset in 2015 as the belief people have that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

When one believes they can learn and grow, they can do just that – rising to the challenges that face people in business, in organizations and in life.

Celebrate the Wins, Even if it’s Hard

One of the questions in the 360º feedback reports I review with leaders in my coaching practice is about celebrating success.

This is often an area of opportunity for many leaders.

A lot of leaders focus on the ‘gap’, what’s not done or not done well.

Thierry Henry expressed the same for himself,

“It was rough, it was touch. It was difficult. It was always what I didn’t do. Not what I did, what I didn’t do that mattered.”
He was told he never used to celebrate his goals. He said “No, because I was thinking about the one that I missed before that was easier to score [than the one I did].”

It’s not just about celebrating achievements. It’s also about celebrating the effort along the way and at the end.

Research shows that motivation and energy are improved when the ratio of positive feedback to constructive feedback are 4-6 positives for every 1 constructive.

The COIN Model is a great resource to use, download the template here.

Like children and dogs, try to find people ‘doing right’ more often, daily even.

Motivation can Come from Unknown Places

Thierry shared about his fear of not being good enough.

He said it came from his Dad. The day he was born, his Dad proclaimed, “this guy is gonna be a great footballer.” Thierry got accolades from billions of people for his football success and “I just wanted it from my Dad. I was chasing something that I could never catch. My little me wanted to hear it [from him].”

Many people feel this. Brené Brown’s research says this feeling is pervasive. People in your teams might be feeling this.

Your role is not to be a therapist. Your role is to make sure people know that:

• their contribution matters,
• their efforts (not just achievements) are unique and appreciated,
• they belong.

Each person is motivated by different things – money, status, learning, team involvement, collaboration, childhood conditioning, power and more.

What motivates each of your team members?

How do you adjust your delegation and communication to their motivators?

Vulnerability Begets Vulnerability

After Thierry shared his story about his father, not feeling good enough and the fears he had playing, Gary Lineker empathized and shared his own vulnerabilities. He said,

“I had a similar relationship with my Dad. Wasn’t until he was on my deathbed…[was] the first time I heard him say I love you, it was in the last conversation we ever [had]… I cried my eyes out in the lift, nurses asked if I was ok…I’m really happy I said.”

Alan Shearer then shared about his Dad.

As Thierry says “And Gary by sharing, obviously, it is contagious when you show vulnerability and you show empathy. You brought me to that story.”
Vulnerability takes courage.

Firefighters are courageous running into burning buildings to save perfect strangers. And by doing so they are being vulnerable. Putting their safety at risk, and their lives and the risk of not being able to save someone and having to live with that fear/guilt.

Leaders need to be vulnerable first, before their team members, because of the risk.

Leaders can share what’s called “allowable weaknesses.”

A CFO can’t say she/he is bad at numbers and can’t read a spreadsheet. They can say that public speaking scares them.

Vulnerability isn’t for the sake of exposing, it’s in service of expressing, sharing, empathy and freeing up constricting energy.

Think about something you can share about yourself, that’s relevant, that others could relate to in order to start the (foot)ball rolling.

Most of The Rest of Football podcasts I don’t understand because I don’t know the players, team or rules well enough. This one I could understand and appreciate. I appreciate it for the vulnerability each participant showed, and for role modelling the humanity that’s present everywhere, even in football 😉.

What could you do to build psychological safety in your workplace?

What would take your leadership from good to great?

What could you do to motivate and inspire your teams?

Get in touch with me here for a no-obligation consultation.


The Rest is Football name and images are owned by Goalhanger Podcasts
COIN from The Feedback Imperative, 2003 Anna Carroll
Growth Mindset, 2015 Professor Carol Dweck