Get rid of your “superstars”!

by Didier Marlier on Saturday June 20th, 2015

This morning, actuality came knocking on the door of this blog, which explains why it is posted later than usual. The news is irrelevant in the context of the existing horrors and gigantic economic and environmental challenges. But in the microcosm of football, I read that Brazil, engaged into the Copa America, will have to do, once again, without their star player, Mr. Neymar da Silva, “punished” with a four games ban for gross misconduct against an opponent and a referee.

As a great fan of the “Seleção” (Brazil national squad) and “futebol” (the Brazilian way of writing football), the news didn’t go unnoticed with me but, contrary to most of the reactions coming from São-Paulo, Rio, Belo-Horizonte or Salvador, my instinctive reaction was: “At last a good news for Brazil who will finally be forced to reinvent itself and stop depend on a single star!”

The event reminded me of many such instances where smart coaches decided to get rid of their key player, for a similar reason in most cases: The team had become totally dependent of their superstar, sometimes (not always) transforming into arrogant and distant prima donnas whose attitude was very detrimental to the team’s culture, Pathos and energy. The French football team won its unique world’s title in 1998 without its super star Eric Cantona, cut by the coach Jacquet. South Korea played its best football under Dutch coach Hiddink who, tired of the desiderata of its stars, cut them out as well. Switzerland played some of its best ice hockey ever when its coaches did not invite their best and most arrogant players.

So what for business? I am sometimes called to support a team or leader who has a sensitive dilemma to deal with: Their best element, the one who is either the most creative, the most loved by clients (and almost “owns them”), the smartest, the most knowledgeable or experienced, in short, the one who they see as their biggest asset, is also the biggest liability to the team. The same person does not respect the procedures, ignores the values of the company and behaves distant and arrogant. He/she terrifies people around, creating a fear based culture. People are mocked, humiliated and threatened but the culprit are so good at suggesting total collapse and chaos in case that their expertise went missing, that it seems that the leaders are unable to do anything or, worse, collude with them. I remember one such person, behaving awfully and destroying scores of “intangible value” being invited to sit at the right of the C.E.O. during the firm’s convention… Guess the kind of message this had sent to the rest of the organization?

Each time, I have been asked to help deal with such a situation, my advice has been the same: “Fire your top scorer”! These people have blackmailed you with promises of mayhem, disasters and of course YOU will be the culprit when this happens… Those dark predictions never materialized! Instead I have seen bright and determined leaders taking the expulsion (always after warnings and coaching had not produced affect with that person) of their stars, as an opportunity to create a successful team.

For sure, the absence of the “deified one” created a bit of a panic to start with, but, rapidly a positive bonding took place (let us close the ranks, let us prove that together we can largely compensate his absence), especially when the banned element (often very narcissistic) decided to take revenge and attack his previous employer by joining a competitor or launching his own practice.

Second, colluding with the disruptive element is the worst thing you can do. Soon your own ethics, values and leadership abilities will, secretly be questioned by your subordinates. No matter how justifiable your intentions (trying to keep the trouble maker and limit his capacity of nuisance), your people will turn their anger against you for not protecting them, for unfair treatment and not letting them develop themselves.

Third, just like when you accept entering the vicious cycle of “negotiating” with a blackmailer, the situation with such people will never improve (if warnings and coaching failed of course). They will take your opening as a confirmation of their indispensability and will demand more privileges.

Finally, getting rid of your “value destroying” key player, will force you and your team to reinvent yourselves. It will destroy the illusion of a dearly paid comfort under the “protection” of the “Godfather” and, usually, will reveal many hidden talents that could not grow in the threatening shadow of the abusive owner of the pedestal.

Growing our stars is of course a management duty. Coaching, developing or warning them when they become too egocentric is part of our job. True leadership is about taking the act of courage of letting go of the one we have drifted into becoming dependent of.

The Brazilian national team has now a unique chance to develop itself, providing it may count on a visionary leader, able to challenge his own orthodoxy that Brazil can not win without Mr. Neymar da Silva…

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