Principal's Assembly 15th June 2021
Last Tuesday, I asked you to consider the qualities that outstanding leaders possess and then agree as a group on the one figure – current or historic – who best demonstrates those traits. That’s not necessarily that the chosen leader will have shown all of those characteristics – leaders are humans not saints and consequently share the same human frailties as you and me.
Personally, I was delighted that Barack Obama received the most nominations. He’s the most magical political candidate of my lifetime and he oversaw some dramatic cultural changes in America, especially in terms of healthcare and equal rights. That said, the promise of his 2008 election victory was never fulfilled, in large part because of the huge divisions that remain in American politics and society.
I’ve also told Obama’s remarkable life story before and, indeed, that of his wife Michelle, so this will be their only mention in this series on great leaders.
Of the remaining nominations, it is interesting to see how many are linked to the civil rights movements of their times: from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, from Emily Davison to Rosa Parks, and from Malala Yousafzai to Marcus Rashford.
Only one other sporting figure made the list and I suspect that this is the only city in which Marcelo Bielsa would have achieved this accolade! However, there is little doubt that the man has had significant impact on his team and our community.
Bielsa is certainly an unconventional football manager. He comes from a high-flying family in Santa Fe, Argentina, where his sister is a lawyer and his brother Argentina’s ambassador to Chile. In common with some other great coaches, Alex Ferguson coming straight to mind, Bielsa didn’t have a great career as a player himself; in fact, he’d retired by the age of 25.
Bielsa has done what all great leaders do – study hard, learn from the best and learn from experience. He’s also moved to Yorkshire and featured in an episode of my favourite comedy show, but that’s less pertinent to this assembly.
He is renowned for his coaching ability, including his ability to connect with individuals, albeit in quite a traditional, distant way, as well as his knowledge of training drills and tactics. Bielsa is also incredibly organised and meticulous about the details, traits that tend to rub off on his players. Famously, early in his management career in Argentina, during the wedding of Newell's defender Dario Franco, Bielsa took the squad to a room in the hotel to watch their next opponent's previous game. I’m sure Mrs Franco was delighted!
Having high expectations for everyone around you is certainly a characteristic of all great leaders. Former Spain striker Aritz Aduriz, who played for Bielsa at Athletico Madrid, says that “As a man, he demands very high performances of himself and his team, so you have to be alert every second. Every moment matters in every training session - every first touch, every strike, anything that happens is scrutinised and that makes you really aware in every training session.” At Barcelona, they call this the Commitment Culture and it’s no different for successful school students.
In spite of the distance between Bielsa and his players – similar to that between teachers and pupils – he has developed leaders within his squad, what in business terms we might call Cultural Architects, the people who lead on the pitch. Great leaders know that it is not all about you and that you can achieve a lot more if you don’t care who gets the credit. Coincidence or not, it’s interesting that one of those is Leeds born and bred, Kalvin Phillips.
Great leaders are also innovators and they don’t care if you happen to find their methods odd. Argentinian Ricardo Lunari recalls a day he turned up for training and “Bielsa was nowhere to be seen. We heard his screams, his instructions, but we couldn't find him. Then suddenly someone spotted him. He was up a tree looking for the best view of our training."
He is very much his own man, from the infamous Bielsa bucket that he sits on during games to his flat above a sweet shop in Wetherby, and an authentic leader because of it. Strength of character, by the way, doesn’t mean being loud and brash; it does mean being empathetic, considerate and self-confident.
Bielsa has attracted various nicknames over the years, including “le professeur” when coaching in Marseilles and “El loco”, the Crazy One, in Spain. The latter reminds us again that great leaders come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, some very charismatic, others introverted.
It’s said that Bielsa is so passionate about football that when he does speak he does so not just with his mouth but with his eyes and hands too. Whatever their style, I doubt whether many great leaders come without this passion for their work.
And maybe in Leeds he has found his spiritual home, a city where football means as much to many people as it does to Bielsa. He has set a vision for the way in which he wants the team to play, he develops his players to achieve that style of play and he’s hero worshipped by the followers. As Carlo Ancelotti put it recently, “Leaders can only really lead if people believe in them.”
It might be considered flippant to concentrate on a football manager when some of your other choices fundamentally changed the direction of travel for people in their countries. I’d tend to agree with that, but it’s not to say that we can’t all learn something from El loco.