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Opinion & Analysis

Leadership Lessons from the European Super League (ESL) Fiasco

In leadership, we often say “every day is a learning day” and a recent event has provided some highly-publicised key learning points that leaders and managers might wish to heed.

Earlier this month, news broke that the ‘big six’ Premier League clubs would join leading Spanish and Italian teams to form an elite league to rival the UEFA Champions League. I do not aim to delve further into the rights or wrongs of this idea, nor the exact details, but rather how it appeared to have been handled and the risks faced by poor communication, lack of a clear strategic narrative and the potential damage caused by leaders being completely out of touch with their people.

Clear, open and transparent communication is an essential requirement for those in leadership positions. Following the breaking news, Liverpool were the first of the six English teams to play with a match scheduled for the following day. It became apparent that their manager, Jurgen Klopp, and the players had not been included in the discussions about the ESL yet were left to face the media seemingly unprepared. By this time, the backlash had well and truly begun. There was general resistance (to put it mildly), almost universal, from the fans, players, former managers and even the UK Prime Minister and the Duke of Cambridge. It is particularly concerning that this was not foreseen by the decision-makers and club owners. For organisations where the leadership is so far removed from the grass roots that they are totally unaware of their people’s feelings, decisions like this one can be catastrophic. We have already seen some high-profile resignations and, whilst writing, demonstrations against some of the clubs’ owners have already begun. It doesn’t bode well. Despite the fact that all six English clubs withdrew from the ESL within 48 hours, the ramifications of the situation will be long lasting. It could all have been avoided through better communication, keeping people informed of the process, eliciting concerns, and listening to those who have now become so vocal.
As leaders, we need to create opportunities to communicate with our people and remember that communication is a two-way process. We need to actively listen, to understand the positions, interests and needs and to make sure we have support and understanding before we make major decisions that will impact many.

Taking People for Granted
Another lesson we can take is what happens when we fail to recognise and respect those who have aided the success of our organisation. It is often said that “our people are our biggest asset” but how many of us really believe that? The loyalty and commitment of the fans, the players and the staff teams of the six football clubs involved seem to the World to have been largely ignored, with the emphasis allegedly on pure greed. There was talk of moving stadia to different towns, even different countries, and creating elite teams that would stay in the ESL whether they performed well or not. There was a ferocious reaction from the fans in particular. Many of these fans have had connections to their teams for generations – some would argue (myself included) their team is in their blood. They have supported them through good times and bad, paying over the odds for merchandise, tickets and travel to follow their heroes. They are right to expect consultation and it seems baffling that this was overlooked, as if they were irrelevant. The anger this has sparked is a true lesson for those in charge. Ignore us at your peril!

Admit your mistakes
We have seen various statements from the clubs’ owners – some perhaps more sincere than others – apologising for the distress, anxiety and upset caused by the decisions they took. Their initial determination that the ESL would go ahead was soon replaced by back downs and half-hearted apologies. It is still early days but we have not yet seen anyone stand up and admit they were wrong; wrong to make decisions without consulting their main stakeholders, wrong to leave their players and managers to pick up the pieces with the press and wrong to assume the fans were going to let them get away with this. Now is a perfect opportunity for the owners to admit their mistakes. Failure to do so will only make matters worse for them.
Leaders are human beings too and sometimes we get it wrong. How we behave in these situations can be a defining moment in our future success.

Jo Abergel is the Founder of Gibraltar-based Rock Learning, a Recognised Provider of the Institute of Leadership & Management, and a long-suffering Spurs fan.

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