The Rise and Fall of the European Super League – 6 key lessons for leaders everywhere

Written by Nigel Girling CMgr CCMI Wednesday 28 April 2021
Much has been said about the ill-fated project to create a breakaway football league for Europe’s elite football clubs
Silhouette of a person looking out into football stadium

Whether you are a football fan or not, whether you agree with the intentions of these elite teams or not and even whether you care a hoot what happened… or not – this remains a very interesting window into much that so easily disconnects organisations from the people and stakeholders they were once established to serve.

So how did it all go so wrong, so quickly and with such devastating consequences?

For those who didn’t pick up on it, here’s a quick summary of what happened:

  • Twelve of the richest and most successful football clubs in Europe, including six of the English Premier League – Manchester United and Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs – along with top teams from Spain and Italy, agreed a strategy to form a breakaway league
  • They announced their plans and were almost immediately deluged in complaints, outrage and passionate opposition from several directions, including the governing bodies of football, media pundits and millions of football fans
  • Within 48 hours the plans began to collapse, as club after club withdrew from the project amid (sometimes grudging) apologies, several resignations and the consumption of a great deal of humble pie
  • By day four, a plan that had been months in the (secret) making was dead in the water

So what does that say about leadership? 

Leadership Lesson Number 1: Remember who you are supposed to be serving

Football clubs rely on their community – not only fans who go to the games, but those who buy the replica shirts, subscribe to the video feeds & digital channels, sponsor games, support the players and so on. As is the case in many sectors, if senior leaders focus too much on shareholders at the expense of other stakeholders, disaster is likely to follow. Serve the needs of all your stakeholders well.

Leadership Lesson Number 2: It’s not just about the money

Many boards and organisations seem to believe that the purpose of a commercial business is simply to make more and more money. That money is usually destined for a tiny proportion of those involved and has little to do with who actually creates the ‘income’. Businesses are established to serve the needs of customers. Do that very well and money is made. Get those things the wrong way round and there may be terrible consequences.

Leadership Lesson Number 3: Not everything is a product...

…. whatever the marketing people may tell you. Treating everything you do as a product commoditises and depersonalises it and is offensive to all those who build relationships, serve stakeholders and are often a major part of the thing you are actually selling – a solution, a service and an experience.

Leadership Lesson Number 4: consult with and involve your key people

Old sins cast long shadows – if you alienate your key allies, it will hurt for years – and may even be fatal. If people don’t understand and believe in the rationale for something, they will tend to oppose it. If they see it as a cynical ploy to enrich the few at the expense of the many, they may not only oppose but also abandon.

Leadership Lesson Number 5: There’s power in apologies

If you screw up, hold your hand up and say sorry – and actually mean it.  Others can quickly see the difference between an apology based on realising something was a mistake and one which is just a tactical move based on a cynical disregard – or lack of understanding – of the reason it was wrong.

Leadership Lesson Number 6: Trust is really hard to build – and very easy to lose

Those who truly support a football club don’t just do so as a shallow form of entertainment. It matters to their very soul. That may seem almost ridiculous to someone who isn’t involved, but it remains the truth. If you don’t believe me, read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Leaders often live very different lives and experience their organisation in very different ways from their ‘customers’… and their staff. It is very wise for any senior leader to know what it is really like to be one of their staff or customers. Insightful and potentially shocking. Try it.

It’s up to you to turn the negatives around...

There is much in this example that reflects core challenges which exist in the corporate world every bit as much as they do in elite sport. The many stakeholders of an organisation are very clearly established in a ‘league table’, with customers low down and staff often facing relegation – far behind the ‘big six’ of shareholders, the City, financial institutions, bonuses, PR and regulators. We value skills in finance, marketing and business administration skills far more highly than people skills, leadership and empathy.

If ever there was a time to reset this outdated corporate league, it is now. If ever there was a wake-up call for the culture of greed and commodity-driven management it is this ESL fiasco. Time to lead for the greater good and for better, healthier communities.

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Nigel Girling CMgr FCMI FInstLM FIIRSM FRSA is renowned as an influential thinker and is a regular contributor to expert panels, think-tanks, conferences and professional journals. As a Chartered Companion of CMI, he is one of a select group of thought leaders seeking to transform leadership for the new world. After 35 years as a CEO, influencer and mentor, his articles are often entertaining, challenging and definitely a sideways look at the key issues of leadership.

Nigel is head of centre at Inspirational Development Group (@InspirationalDG).

You can read more of Nigel Girling’s work here:

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