Leadership lessons from Chelsea FC's Rafa Benitez

Chelsea's new(ish) steward Rafa Benitez may have copped a lot of flack from Blues fans since his shock appointment but his performance to date has been impressive (QPR notwithstanding). Here's what business leaders can learn from the hot-headed Spaniard.

by Kier Wiater-Carnihan
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

In terms of unlikely managerial appointments, Rafa Benitez's unveiling as Chelsea manager in November is probably only second to Brian Clough replacing his nemesis Don Revie at Leeds in 1974. Clough told his new charges that they could throw their medals ‘in the bin, because they were not won fairly’ (a line memorably delivered by Michael Sheen in The Damned United). Benitez’s arrival was somewhat less dramatic but, while manager of Liverpool, Benitez was also guilty of regularly berating his richer and more successful rivals Chelsea. Those barbs will not quickly be forgotten.

Blues fans have been singing less than welcoming ditties concerning the new boss ever since his arrival, and there's even a website counting down the hours until his short-term contract is up. Yet Chelsea's form since he took over (34 goals in 13 games, although a home defeat against QPR was a considerable blip) is in danger of making the 'Rafa Out' brigade look a little foolish. So what can you learn from the goateed Spaniard in order to get the stuttering Torres's in your team back on track?

Don't expect to live off past successes

Benitez record is, by and large, pretty impressive. At Anfield he became the first manager to win a major trophy in each of his first two seasons, including an unlikely Champions League victory against AC Milan. His previous achievements at Valencia were, if anything, more surprising: winning back-to-back league titles and a UEFA cup. To put that in perspective, no other team apart from Barcelona and Real Madrid has won the Spanish title this century, and he was UEFA's Manager of the Year in 2004 and 2005.

Yet his star has waned considerably since then. A disappointing end to his Liverpool reign was followed by a stunted six month period at Internazionale in 2010, his last managerial role prior to Chelsea. His return to English football has not been pretty; it was widely hailed as the second coming of the 'Fat Spanish Waiter' by the less charitable quarters of the football community (i.e. Chelsea fans). In the beautiful game, as in business, a reputation takes many achievements to secure but only a couple of high-profile failures to destroy. People have short memories, so don't expect past triumphs to carry you forever.  

Don't alienate your fans/staff/customers

'We don’t need to give away flags for our fans to wave — our supporters are always there with their hearts, and that is all we need.'

That sly dig at Chelsea's policy of handing out free flags to fans before Champions League ties came back to haunt Benitez recently, and it's one of the main reasons his new team's fans have been so hostile to his appointment. He has refused to apologise for the remarks, insisting, 'It wasn’t a lack of respect for the Chelsea fans, it was a Liverpool manager defending his team'. That may be the case but a less stubborn man might have adopted a more contrite manner in order to stem the flow of vitriol.

There have been mercifully few examples of company bosses slating staff or customers or indeed products (that's the reason poor old Gerald Ratner is still so infamous) but it may be worth reminding all staff - especially in this age of social media gaffes - to be especially careful when talking about the hands that feed your business. Also, be wary of slagging off rivals. That kind of behaviour may come back to bite you.

Convince people you're 'one of them'

Taking a high-profile job in a foreign country can be a pretty daunting experience, especially in football where so much depends on the fans' perception of you. However, Benitez was taken to heart by Liverpool fans early on, and though the end to his regime was far from glorious he's still very much revered there.

Much of this is down to the way he assimilated. Merseyside is a long way from Madrid but Benitez continued to live in the Wirral even after he left Liverpool, with his family happy to sing the area's praises. His vehicle of choice when driving around his adopted home is a Union Jack mini, he's happily sat with fans in foreign bars when abroad, and he donated almost £100,000 to the Hillsborough Families Support Group after leaving Liverpool. When joining a new firm, a business leader must embrace the company culture as quickly as possible. And, if it's a consumer-facing brand, make sure you're never spotted toting rival products. Can you imagine Eric Schmidt being papped Facetime-ing on an iPhone?

Even if this is all just PR, it's very good PR. In Benitez's case, Liverpool is an area where regional pride is taken very seriously. Just look at sales, or lack thereof, of The Sun in Merseyside since they printed their salacious - and false - Hillsborough headlines 23 years ago. It's gestures like these which can keep you in high regard amongst the public even in the face of a hostile media.

Stick to your guns

There are certain managers who are happy simply assembling a talented team and entrusting them to do a job without excessive instruction. Benitez is not one of those managers. He studies his opponents exhaustively, trying to identify weaknesses that may be exploited. And one strategy that Benitez has found most effective involves 'zonal defending', the footballing philosophy that it's wiser for defenders to protect assigned areas rather than mark specific opponents. In fact, his inisistance on sticking rigidly to this method of defence borders on the obsessive. 

In a fan-led interview with Four Four Two, Benitez was asked why he persisted with zonal defending (this strategy is something of a bugbear for British tacticians) and Benitez's response was unequivocal: 'It worked well for us. If you see the Premier League statistics, twice we conceded the fewest goals from set-pieces'.

However, be wary of Benitez's lackadaisical attitude to hiding his strategy. You could be handing your rivals the keys to your undoing. Brazilian journalists were delighted to find a discarded tactics sheet in the changing room following Chelsea's defeat to Corinthinians in the recent Club World Cup final, and the revelations quickly made their way into the British press. Luckily for Benitez, the tactics described were little more than what you'd expect – elementary marking instructions for set pieces - however, even the most obvious of strategy instructions can be vulnerable if let into the public domain. Unless they belong to Paul Ince of course, whose instructions concerning what to do when in opposition territory are as obvious as what to do when presented with a quantity of oxygen when in possession of a pair of lungs...

Try not to alienate your paymasters

Benitez is no Alex Ferguson, the true master at staying onside with owners, players, and even old colleagues. While at Valencia Benitez bemoaned the unwanted signing of Fabián Canobbio with the immortal words, 'I was hoping for a sofa and they've bought me a lamp'. His resignation came soon after.

Likewise, his departure from Liverpool followed a protracted dispute with then owners, the American moguls George Gillett and Tom Hicks, over transfer funds. Again, his employers proved impatient with his posturing. Gillett's response to Benitez's criticisms was unflinching: 'We have invested more money than our competitors, in keeping with the history of the club, which means it should be getting better. Now if it’s not getting better, it’s not Gillett and Hicks, it’s the manager'.

Unsurprisingly, Benitez found himself ostracised, and left, 'by mutual consent', soon afterwards.

At Internazionale it was the same deal. Having turned around a disappointing start to the season by winning the Club World Cup, Benitez tried to use the trophy as a bargaining chip for more funds, arguing that if the board weren't willing to back him in the transfer market, they should consider his position.

They did.

The fact is, shareholders are often the only thing keeping you in a job. Ultimatums are a bad idea at the best of times – they're particularly bad when the people you're offering them to are rich, opinionated and under pressure themselves.

Witness all the trouble stirred up by the Qataris during the long drawn out Glencore/Xstrata deal. The merger finally went through in November but Glencore CEO and architect of the deal Ivan Glasenberg could easily have been stalled indefinitely by irate Xstrata stake-holders. Keep the investors sweet, and you're more likely to get your way.

Like this? Read:

Leadership lessons from Alex Ferguson

Leadership lessons from Arsene Wenger

Leadership lessons from Harry Redknapp

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