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  • January 20, 2023

How Fútbol (soccer) Explains My Leadership Style

Series note:

This is Part 2 of two-part series on leadership style. See part 1 here: “Don’t Be a Generic Leader: The Overlooked Power of Shaping One’s Own Leadership Style.”

Here, I invite you to reflect on how you would define your own leadership style by using my own answer to this question as a foil.


Those who know me at work as colleagues or their consultant most likely are aware of my Peruvianness as a leadership style differentiator. In my work, I have leveraged this in multiple ways both in how I express myself but also in how I draw insights and lessons learned.

But there is another fundamental dimension that few know about that is key to understanding my leadership style — and given the elevated appreciation for soccer among many previous non-fans due to the Qatar World Cup — it’s timely to share that this identity that shapes my leadership style is as a lifelong fútbol player, coach, and fan.

While I’m on the other side of my glory days as a fútbol player, soccer is a core part of my identity – and it has profoundly shaped my approach to how I lead. Having played on a championship high school team and then in the Big Ten at Northwestern University as a right midfielder, having coached boys and girls, and as a World Cup fan who has followed every single one since I can remember and who has attended in person those in Spain (’82), USA (’94), Brazil (’14), and recently Qatar, it is my undeniable passion. One that has kept me fit, creative, and happy.

Generally, my leadership style is shaped by certain core competencies such as strategic mindset, systemic thinking, communications, and interpersonal connection. I also seek to live up to the standards of what I have spent a decade with Korn Ferry colleagues defining as inclusive leadership. But it’s fútbol that explains how I move in the execution of these specialties.

For me, fútbol has shaped my style through these three concepts:

  • Careful preparation goes hand-in-hand with improvisational pivoting
  • Anticipate where the climactic play is going to happen (and it’s not where the ball is in that moment)
  • Ganas (passion) is the fuel of personal confidence, assertiveness, and transformational resilience

Let’s look at each:

Careful preparation goes hand-in-hand with improvisational pivoting

Of course, careful preparation is essential. I do my homework in terms of academic and corporate research, spending time understanding the client’s business, and core challenges mapping out the motivations and dispositions of the leaders who will be in the room, anticipating the things that could go wrong including in using technology.

But no one situation can be fully predicted. We are, after all, dealing with human beings in all their complexity of their own beliefs, feelings, and moods of the moment. While the NFL style of football planning entails hundreds of set plays that are a complex and beautiful marvel, and provide a template for how to approach corporate work by having a ready playbook for any eventuality, that is definitely not my leadership paradigm.

Instead, the soccer player within my leadership style operates with the notion that preparation has its limits. As on the fútbol field, preparation meets the unpredictability of a moment. The movement on the field is continuously fluid. Which team is on offense and defense shifts in an instant. There are concepts practiced over and over such as the give-and-go, the weave, the centering – but these are not deployed in set ways. They are in the grab bag of options as individual players make choices in the moment to pass short, medium, or long, pass after a few steps or pass with a one touch; dribble in circles, diagonally, or in a straight line; or shoot, juggle, or head the ball. Each player must take into account not only what their teammates and opponent are doing, but also what the players on both sides are anticipating they are going to want to do.

As on the fútbol field, preparation meets the unpredictability of a moment.

Despite limits on the aptness of this metaphor with client work — clients are not opponents, but strategic team players with a positional orientation different from the consultants — the skill of improvisation of is relevant; the soccer player consultant is mindful of what the client is testing, resisting, seeking to do and adjusts accordingly. These are leaders, after all, with their own skills, deep experiences, and informed points of view. Yet, as a consultant I am trying to help them change perspective or make a paradigm shift or develop a skill they are not as strong in despite their wild successes in their careers. I must be ready to adjust in the moment.

Futbol is about creating spaces. Where and how can we pull the other players out of their comfort zones to create new open spaces to move into, to get into the position to make a game changing play?

No alt text provided for this image
Anatomy of Argentina’s second goal vs France in Qatar 2022 Final – Diagramming by the author

Just watch Messi. When he gets the ball is he going to slow down or speed up? Is he going to go left right or left or both left and right? Or right down the middle? Or, instead, is he going to deliver a smoothly curving pass to the diagonally opposed side of the field or instead flip it over the defense … or take a missile shot toward the goal? So much improvisation is only possible on top of much preparation. But no preparation can predict how the plays will unfold.

Anticipate where the climactic play is going to happen (and it’s not where the ball is in that moment)

Of the five or more kilometers per game that Messi puts in, 80% are through walking. Nearly no world class player walks this much during a game. Is he just strolling? Staying warmed up? Conserving energy? Kinda. But primarily he is reading the field continually. He’s studying the current open spaces and how he will be able to widen the space anticipating where a certain play unfolding now is going to end up 6 seconds later where he will be sure to be in that spot and ready to feed the ball to the spot his other teammate will be 3 seconds after that.

Often, he will pause before making the move, waiting for the defense to commit, and then go with the dribble or that perfectly fed ball to the open spot angled just right so that a teammate meets up to it at full speed and power to direct it into the net.  

A leadership style paradox at play here is that the beauty of each individual player’s individuality and special gifts generates opportunities for the rest of the team. The individualistic play sets up the collective play. As a midfielder, I’m in a role where I must anticipate where the action is going to be – or needs to be.  To capitalize means to move into the space in anticipation or to create the space so it can happen.

Ganas (passion) is the fuel of personal confidence, assertiveness, and transformational resilience

Like most team sports, soccer requires assertiveness. In fútbol it manifests often in that, rather than waiting for a pass to arrive at your feet, players must take the initiative and step toward the ball to ensure they get to it before the opponent does. Just that one step ahead is often all one needs to win the rounding of the corner around the opponent to free up for a clear shot to the goal.

This assertiveness is fueled by passion, a concept captured with the Spanish word ganas, which means heart and soul – to live and play with everything you’ve got. It’s what you tap into when your body and mind tell you have that you have nothing else of give. Ganas becomes the philosophical principle for the soul for soccer – and in my case as a leader, for leading. To be able to tap into my team members’ ganas is to be able to tap into their very sense of everyone’s self and personal power. It’s ganas that fuels me in my leadership, it fuels our team to press on regardless of a pandemic, riots in the streets, a war, personal struggles, hard deadlines, financial pressures.

How do you get so much done I am asked — it’s ganas all the way.

So here you have the makings of my leadership style: improvisation on the basis of preparation, anticipating where a conversation in a strategic session is going, and living and working with ganas.

Next time you see me with my Soccer is Life t-shirt you will better understand how much it has shaped my leadership style.

What has shaped yours and how can you optimize that asset further?


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