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Team spirit

Richard Watermeyer suggests what higher education leaders could learn from football managers

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar has provided many striking moments of leadership on display and on trial, and today’s final will no doubt provide more.

Actions on and off the pitch have provided insight into the character of football leaders—from managers and players, to FIFA as world football’s governing body.

But they have also revealed broader points about leadership, and higher education would do well to take note.

First, it’s not all about winning the golden trophy. Different leaders will have different aims and different markers of success. For some emerging football powers, making it out of the pool stages may figure as an accomplishment bar none. In Qatar 2022, Africa may be proud of its unprecedented achievements in seeing representation for the first time in the competition’s semi-finals. Different universities will similarly want to set and celebrate their own distinctive ambitions.

Unrealistic expectations

Then, it’s not all about individuals. Pressure and expectation to succeed in football, as perhaps the most commercialised and lucrative of global sports, can be huge and unrealistic. Even managers of impeccable track record can face the sudden ire of fans and see their contracts terminated when a team’s success begins to falter. Take Luis Enrique, manager of Spain, whose failure to progress his team further into the tournament in Qatar was taken as a failure of leadership and sound enough reason for ‘consensual’ termination of contract.

Vice-chancellors tend not to face instant dismissal if their university slips down the world rankings. This is because, unlike in football, achievement or failure is less often credited or blamed on any one person. While individual players or managers on the field may be treated as either cult heroes or villains-of-the-piece depending upon their team’s success, this is rarely the case for university management.

Which is wise. Individual achievements (or failings) rarely ever materialise without the contribution and support (or lack of it) from many, albeit less visible, others. Here, football, which also depends upon the coherence and harmony of a broad collective of players, coaches, backroom staff, and club directors for success, may have lessons to learn.

But it is something already recognised by Argentina’s star player—and candidate for greatest footballer of all time—Lionel Messi. In the immediate aftermath of Argentina’s triumph over the Netherlands in the World Cup quarter-finals, his first instinct as captain of his team was not to bask in the adulation of adoring fans but to applaud the efforts of his teammates, and specifically his goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, who had successfully seen off two Dutch penalty attempts, thus helping his country through to the tournament’s semi-finals. This act of humility and gratitude was attributed to Messi’s quality not only as a galáctico but as an outstanding leader. It was taken to mean that no matter how ‘godly’ the status of a player may be, his or her greatness as a leader stems not from their individual brilliance but their capacity to motivate and extract brilliance from others.


And leadership—or potential leadership—can also be demonstrated in times of failure. Take the English national team’s defeat by France in the quarter-finals. Following the penalty miss from England striker and captain Harry Kane, midfielder Jude Bellingham demonstrated maturity well beyond his 19 years by immediately running up to console his captain. Such a demonstration of ‘togetherness’ was rightly heralded across the world media, which announced the surety of Bellingham as a future Three Lions captain.

Togetherness was an important emphasis for other national teams, such as England’s neighbour Wales, which used the mantra ‘together stronger’, an inversion of the slogan used in rugby by current World Champions, South Africa—‘stronger together’.

Then there is moral leadership. The 2022 World Cup will be remembered for the efforts of many national teams in denouncing social inequality and discrimination, and their promotion of equal rights.

Both professional football and academia operate in hyper-competitive contexts of high accountability and moral responsibility. They are also distinguished by low toleration of failure and a high degree of occupational precarity. Very few professional footballers ‘make it’. The same, in an era of higher education casualisation, may also be said of academics—careers may end before being given a chance to bed in.

Leadership crisis

However, there are important differences. Higher education in the UK is currently in the grips of a crisis of leadership, where trust in leaders appears to have evaporated and cultural dissonance and a sentiment of ‘them and us’ is rampant. A dearth of togetherness within university communities has been amplified both by the experience of the pandemic and the persistence of non-consultative forms of governance within universities rationalised as crisis management. Ongoing industrial action and the demonisation of university leaders by the University and College Union hasn’t helped.

Highly paid university leaders are characterised as not listening, not caring, and of being uninterested in the welfare and health and wellbeing of their staff. They appear to have ‘lost the dressing room’.

Yet empathetic leadership that authentically engages with and works with staff is vital in mitigating the spread of toxic work cultures in universities, as a recent study of higher education leadership has shown.

The success of university leaders, much like that of football managers, stems from their capacity to inspire confidence and understanding in the logic of their decision-making, their ability to bring a team along within them, and commitment to a culture of togetherness underpinned by humility, openness, mutual respect and flexibility. It also depends on a commitment to prioritising the welfare of their players, without whom there is no team and no chance of success.

Richard Watermeyer is professor of higher education and co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformations (CHET) at the University of Bristol. Twitter: @rpwatermeyer