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Leaders celebrate last
On Messi and positive Leadership examples.
I love Messi. 🐐⚽
He was born in Argentina, like me. He was born in Rosario, like me. A big football town, in a BIG football country (even though I live in the U.S., I was born and raised in Argentina, so there’s no “soccer“ for me, only football).
He is arguably the best footballer in history. He won 44 trophies in his career, including the World Cup last year and, just this past weekend, the newly created Leagues Cup, for Inter Miami FC against Nashville SC.
I have followed his career since he was a “young promise” who migrated from Rosario to Barcelona in pursuit of better opportunities and the support he needed to realize his full potential (he had a deficiency in growth hormones, so he had to get an expensive and painful treatment, that required him to get daily injections from the time he was 8 until he was 14).
He eventually grew up to fulfill that promise, mastered incredible feats on a pitch, won all possible trophies at the club level with Barcelona, and earned multiple individual accolades but, until recently, was lacking accomplishments at the Argentina National Team level. He lost back-to-back finals with the Argentina national team in 2015, 2016 and 2017 (2nd place in Brazil World Cup, and 2nd place in Copa America don’t count for most Argentinians, it’s first place or disgrace).
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2021, an inflection point
In 2021, he had to leave Barcelona, the city where he grew up and formed a family. And he had to leave Barcelona FC, a club that over the years made some questionable financial decisions that put them in a very difficult position: they could not renew their biggest star’s contract, because of salary caps.
Millions of football fans saw him crying at the press conference, announcing his departure, after 21 years with the club. He was emotional and visibly shaken.
It was a very traumatic separation, which he took with a lot of class (we’ve seen athletes acting like scornful babies for much less), probably because after all he ended up in a very profitable contract with PSG, albeit in an endeavor that was probably subpar in the professional and personal aspects for him.
Throughout his career, he has always absorbed responsibility and attracted all the flashes. Both to celebrate him in victory and to question him in defeat. When you’re the 🐐, that comes with the territory.
He had always kept a very humble stance, even when he was on top of the world. You’d never see him brag, and he always had this private demeanor and low profile (as low as it can be for someone with 600m followers on social media).
He has such a heavy “gravitational field” that attracts all the attention during, and after the games. Teammates respect him for his unparalleled skills, but also for his work ethic, and because having him on the pitch takes A TON of pressure off them. The opposite team has to assign two, three, and sometimes more people to mark him, leaving other players potentially open.
And he does not shy away from it: it’s like he says “OK, bring it on”, but not in a defying way. He just quietly takes on more, and more.
Rivals respect him for his immense talent and his loyalty on and off the pitch. Even one of his sponsors made his refusal to flop part of the theme of their advertising campaign. And yet, he seemed unable to win trophies with the Argentina National Team.
But I believe it was that moment of vulnerability, after leaving Barcelona, that things started to change.
2022, a Messi Renaissance
A new generation of players in the Argentina National Team had emerged, and they embraced him as a symbol, and rallied around him, not to bask in his glow, or mooch off him, but to protect him and see to his success. They idolized him, they protected him. It was heartwarming to see how the whole team defended him. And he started to smile again, and the victories finally started to come.
For a usually quiet guy, it was inspiring to listen to his pep talk prior to the Copa America final game vs. Brazil in 2022. To this day, that improvised speech brings tears to my eyes, and to the eyes of most warm-blooded Argentinians (and probably to anyone who played a team sport).
He has gestures that build trust in his leadership. In the World Cup, after a heated game against the Netherlands, when the whole team ran to celebrate with the player who scored the final penalty, he ran to the opposite side of the pitch to hug the goalkeeper.
And in the final game, when the last penalty was shot, the players returned the favor, they went to hug him instead of going to celebrate. They haven’t just won with him. They won FOR him. 🏆
Now in Inter Miami, he just seems to be enjoying life. And he keeps winning. He scored 10 goals in seven games, and (with the help of some key sidekicks like Busquets and Alba) took a team that was dead last, to win its first trophy.
And while the spotlight follows him everywhere, he doesn’t seem blinded by it: he lets other players take the penalty kicks, even if it means having fewer chances to increase his (already astronomical) personal tally. He plays the full game, even at 36, and he keeps practicing hard, honing his skills. He reportedly gave a customized welcome present to all his teammates, and he got some of them extra tickets for the debut game.
Most recently, he gave the captain armband back to the former team captain DeAndre Yiedlin as they were about to lift the trophy. It was a way of acknowledging that the team already had a captain before he arrived and that the success wasn’t just about him showing up. It’s the team effort that got them there. And then he took the time to take smiling selfies with other players and their families. He won them over, with leadership behaviors and results. Like somebody said commenting on some of these gestures: “These players will now run through a wall for him”.
Of course, leaders are not born. They are avid learners and observers of styles of leadership that work. It’s not a coincidence that he got to share the pitch with some universally recognized and beloved examples of team leadership, the likes of Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta, and Javier Mascherano.
They displayed a repertoire of passionate, inspiring & selfless behaviors that Messi is now using to build his leadership legacy, which he adds on top of his tremendous skills and sportive success.
What does it say about his leadership style?
In his book “Leaders Eat Last”, author Simon Sinek talks about some characteristics of great leaders, and proposes a few leadership lessons:
Leadership Lesson 1: So Goes the Culture, So Goes the Company
Leadership Lesson 2: So Goes the Leader, so Goes the Culture
Leadership Lesson 3: Integrity Matters
Leadership Lesson 4: Friendship Matters
Leadership Lesson 5: Lead the People, Not the Numbers
All these seem to resonate through the examples described above, but I want to highlight a great quote that puts Lesson 5 center and front, and clearly illustrates the type of behaviors that make leaders (like Lionel Messi) successful and universally appreciated:
“Great leaders are willing to sacrifice the numbers to save the people. Poor leaders sacrifice the people to save the numbers.” - Simon Sinek
Some may say “Well, those gestures are just a Marketing stunt“. Well, that Marketing Manager deserves a raise then. Messi is clearly well advised in that regard, including the brilliant idea of partnering with AppleTV on the subscriptions (which resulted in Apple beating its estimates, and receiving a nod from Tim Cook) and a portion of the T-Shirt sales with Adidas (sold out until October).
Being a good leader is good business.