What I learned about business leadership from the best football coach in the world.

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As an avid reader and sports fan, I’m a proponent of the idea that the skills of a leader in sport can often be readily applied to the business and marketing world. Some of my favourite insights into team building and culture come  from a book I read last year on the All Blacks for example. Building a great team or dynasty has a lot of overlap with building a great brand.

I’m currently on a trip round the world, catching up on some reading, and one of the most riveting books I’ve had in the list for a while is ‘Pep Confidential’. It didn’t disappoint in terms of leadership lessons.

As the chief architect behind building Barcelona into the football world’s most feared and respected outfit, Pep Guardiola has grown a reputation as a deep thinker about football, culture and life. Last season, after a year out of the game following the unparalleled Barca success story, he made the bold move to Bayern Munich, another proud side with distinct style.

Throughout the season, journalist Marti Perarnau was given exclusive access to the club for the book, and his execution of the story is top drawer. A picture is painted of an obsessive, often overworked, always energised and passionate man, but there are also some amazing insights into Guardiola’s style and mind. Here are the key points I took away.

The critical need for clarity of purpose

Yes, it’s a bit of a cliche in marketing and branding these days, but the ‘start with why’ line of thinking – the need to communicate a deeper meaning behind your brand to stakeholders – has never been more important give the cynical nature of the common consumer.

Similarly for Pep, ensuring that players and fans understand at all times what the club is trying to achieve is crucial. According to the author, for Guardiola, “the core idea is the essence of a team and its coach. More than a single concept, it is the synthesis between a particular belief system and the group’s stated mission”. Just like in business, employees/players must “be completely open to learning the secrets of the language, to practise them and make improvements where necessary. They must have complete faith in this process.” In Guardiola’s view three simple concepts, the ‘core idea, ‘language’ and ‘people’ are fundamental parts of any organisational model and can determine a leader’s chances of success or failure.
Simply, when you sell people a goal or idea that they can buy into and become part of, they become more engaged with the process.

Maintaining openness and flexibility

Though his teams tend to play a certain way, like and good leader, Pep is very open to change. Like in today’s constantly disrupted business landscape, football can change from hour to hour, so being ‘anti fragile’ as the current buzz term goes, is important. Guardiola repeats the lesson of Dick Fosbury, the first high jumper to jump backwards over the bar, as an example of how change can be a great thing. He is trying to introduce new concepts to football and he likes to see it evolving year by year according to Perernau, so must never stand still. Learning from and partnering with other sports and organisations is part of this. One of the main characters in his coaching set up is a former Spanish water polo international, while he takes a keen interest in the movement of basketball – “In basketball if you are dribbling the ball all the time, the defence has an easier time of it. But if instead you pass it rapidly from one player to another you create huge problems for your opponents”. Anyone who has watched a Pep team will see how this particular tactic is implemented.

Many brands could learn from that, as collaboration is still too often seen as taboo.

The Kaizen concept

A Japanese word meaning ‘continuous improvement’, kaizen frequently pops up in both sport and business books. The desire to evolve, and quickly, has never been so important in both codes, given the pace of change and sheer scale of competition. According to Pep, he holds an “immutable belief that constant evolution is a fundamental imperative. Evolution is way of being – a necessity, a duty.”

With Bayern, he wants to “to establish ourselves at the top level and then set about building an era of repeated and consistent success through evolving game plans”. Far from being one trick ponies, it seems the best leaders embrace and thrive in uncertainty.

The idea thief

Great artists steal and improve ideas, and the coach is no stranger to this process. Careful observation of the competitive landscape, and the ability to pick and choose pieces of info are important traits. The author describes how Guardiola has never considered himself a creative genius, an inventor. Instead he has defined himself as an ‘ideas thief’, someone who, as a footballer, experimented but most of all learned, and when he decided to be a coach kept on learning.
He studies the strategies of the best, and muses that “ideas belong to everyone and I steal as many as I can”. Good advice.

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A direct line

Pampered footballers demand specific, direct communication, just like most employees. Directness and clarity must be emphasised in the Bayern set-up, like any great company, but people aren’t robots, and different scenarios demand different means of communication.

The trick is working out how to interact with each individual. Whilst his players are constantly learning and incorporating new concepts into their game, the boss is also learning and improving the way he communicates with each player. In marketing, we often have a tendency to be unnecessarily verbose, but it’s just that, unnecessary.
Pep isn’t out to intellectualise football, or his ideas and concepts. He doesn’t use complicated vocabulary. He’s an ordinary guy and uses simple words in a smart way, like any good leader in any line of work.

Imposter

Even the best have moments of doubt, and imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate, Perversely, I found it slightly heartening that the best coach in world football has doubts just like me – “I know you won’t believe me and that people will think it’s false modesty but it’s honestly what I believe. I have so many doubts, I worry about everything and am secure about nothing.” Feeling the strain is normal, and all transformative leaders will experience this, so knowing that is comforting in itself I think.

Power of positivity

And finally, the one trait that a leader must have is the ability to remain positive, and see through the fog. According to Irish rugby players, another great coach, Joe Schmidt, won’t say anything negative to the players from there days before a game, preferring to emphasise the positives. Similarly, Pep doesn’t criticise – “We’d never start telling them off. If the game’s going badly you only earn credibility by correcting what they’re doing rather than shouting about it.”
When the chips are down, a great business leader keeps a cool head and uses action rather than negativity, thereby energising his team rather than sucking the life from it.

Evidently, business/marketing and football are two very different areas, but the common parts of the Venn diagram offer some nice, juicy insights for those willing to search them out. And after all, isn’t the opportunity to ,earn and connect information the main reason we read business books?

The smartest, most adaptable business people are those that can learn from anywhere, and Pep is certainly a good role model for anyone in that mould.