3 lessons FIFA needs to learn from Pope Francis



By Alan Foster & BJ Wright

Diego Maradona famously asserted that “football isn’t a game, nor a sport – it’s a religion.” Of course today we all know that it’s bigger than that – football is a huge global business. And, while the U.S. Department of Justice’s charges against nine FIFA officials are capturing headlines, true fans of the sport may miss the bigger opportunity to understand and address what has gone wrong among senior leadership at Fédération Internationale de Football Association. If football clubs ran their teams in a similar way to FIFA, they should expect empty stadiums, end of season relegation, and bankruptcy. When you look at how CEOs and other leaders undertake transformations of global organizations you can see how steep the uphill path is ahead.

We recently completed the largest leadership research project of its kind in which we uncovered what the most successful leaders accomplish. Unfortunately our conclusions reveal the gulf between where FIFA stands today and where a new President will need to take it. We found that the best leaders focus on getting three things done:

They set the right priorities: FIFA’s stated mission is to “develop football everywhere and for all, to touch the world through its inspiring tournaments and to build a better future through the power of the game”. In addition to being vacuous twaddle it’s also apparent that the actual focus of FIFA’s leadership team appears to be about enriching themselves, not the world. The new FIFA president needs to reset the organizations priorities – ideally with a symbolic shift. Politicians understand that one must never let a good crisis go to waste. Similarly the new President will have a few months to reverse the Qatar 2022 decision or some other defining achievement when he still has the mandate.

They get the right people in the right roles: prior to Sepp Blatter’s resignation the best hope for modernization was pinned to an unelected member of the Jordanian royal family. This highlights quite how bad things had gotten. FIFA’s current predicament is an illustration of what happens as a result of badly run succession planning. It breaks all the rules of world-class talent selection. Instead, FIFA’s leadership are elected under a black box approach that actually favors corruption. When facts and fairness appear to be replaced by cronyism and bullying during a leadership selection processes, it makes it nearly impossible for an organization to have trust and confidence in the leaders named in that process. The new FIFA president will need to blow up the existing governance and leadership selection process. Are you skeptical that this will happen? We would agree with you.

Re-establish trust in the organization: Even if a new President succeeds in resetting FIFA’s priorities and revamping its governance, arguably the biggest challenge will be to rebuild trust in the organization. And, like taking possession back from Bayern Munich in the 88th minute, trust is extremely hard to regain. Most leaders attempt to do so with grandiose speeches and public pronouncements. A skeptical public typically takes years to change their point of view – if at all.

So, if football really is more than a game, or a sport and is in fact a religion; then perhaps it should learn from the leader currently navigating the Catholic Church through a turnaround. While he may have room to go, Pope Francis is arguably in the midst of an ambitious corporate transformation. He has i) reset the church’s priorities to focus on helping the poor ii) has revamped his leadership team (e.g. selecting a no-nonsense contrarian Cardinal to spearhead financial reform) iii) become a role model driving his 20 year old Renault 4 living the values that he preaches. Most fans would be right to expect FIFA-as-usual under a new President. And while that is most likely, it does not need to be that way.

Alan Foster is co-author of Power Score: Your Formula for Leadership Success, recently published by Ballantine Book. Both Alan and BJ Wright are Principals at ghSMART & Company.