Leadership lessons from Paolo Di Canio

Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio is known as 'the mad Italian' and was recently listed as one of FourFourTwo's 'Unmanageables', yet he draws epic performances out of his own players at times. Here are five of his leadership lessons.

by Kier Wiater-Carnihan
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Following Paolo Di Canio's playing career is like keeping track of the Bitcoin exchange rate: precipitous highs (winning the Fair Play awards) and scoring spectacular goals inevitably followed by plummeting depths (brawling with refs and employers). His move into management has so far followed the same jagged trajectories, to the point where this week he's occupied a high and a low simultaneously – replacing Martin O'Neill at Sunderland while facing tricky questions about his political beliefs – turning him into some sort of Schrödinger's Fascist. So what can you learn from the best and worst traits of 'the mad Italian'?

1. Politics is a dangerous game

'Never talk about religion or politics' goes the old adage, but then Di Canio has never been one for conventional wisdom. The current controversy surrounding him stems from a passage in his autobiography where he described Mussolini, whose antonomasia, 'Il Duce', is tattooed on his arm, as a 'deeply misunderstood individual' (while conceding his 'actions were often vile'). Celebrating a goal with a straight-armed salute when playing for Mussolini's favoured team Lazio in 2005 made things even worse, and his clarification that he was 'a fascist, not a racist' when subsequently criticised didn't help either.

Some have claimed the term fascism doesn't have quite as incendiary connotations in Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi has launched similar defences of Mussolini in order to curry far-right favour. Yet the Lazio 'ultras', who Di Canio openly identifies with, have previously unveiled banners denouncing rivals Roma as a 'Team of Blacks, Crowd of Jews' and offered 'Honour to Arkan's Tigers' during the Balkan War. Pretty difficult to spin you'd think, although Berlusconi gave it a go, describing Di Canio as 'an exhibitionist but a good lad'.

The 'exhibitionist' has struggled to keep politics off the agenda since returning to England. In a profile in The Independent he insisted: 'I haven't voted for 14 years...Italian politicians think only about themselves, and making money'. Yet he's also withering about footballers with no knowledge of wider issues, quipping to an Italian journalist: 'If you tell [Francesco] Totti there are tensions in the Middle East, he'll assume that a fight has broken out on the right side of midfield.'

His political posturing has already had consequences in Britain beyond the expected media frenzy. At Swindon his appointment caused trade union GMB to terminate its £4,000-a-season sponsorship of the club. His arrival this week at Sunderland, based in an area which has been pinpointed as a key battleground of the BNP and the EDL, saw  vice-chairman and former Labour politician David Miliband resign in protest, while The Durham Miners’ Association asked for a symbolic Wearmouth Miners’ banner to be returned from the Stadium of Light (which we recently reviewed).

While there is obviously a huge crossover between politics and business (and indeed football, especially in Italy), aligning yourself too closely to any particular ideology could cause problems in the long run. There's a reason why Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Microsoft all donated to both the Democrat and Republican campaigns during the 2012 election – hedging their bets means retaining an influence no matter who wins.

2. Hard work can overcome being dealt a bad hand

Italian footballers tend to have expressive nicknames bestowed upon them. Roberto Baggio was dubbed 'The Divine Ponytail', Fabrizio Ravanelli became 'The White Feather' and formidable defender Fabio Cannavaro became known as 'The Berlin Wall'.

Paulo Di Canio's nickname, at least as a child, was 'Lard-ball'. An insatiable appetite for fizzy drinks produced a physique unfit for football, and his need for orthopaedic shoes, not to mention an unfortunate bed-wetting habit, did him no favours either. Yet for Di Canio, adversity only exists to be defeated; 'I never hid,' he recalls, 'my response was to exercise'. He reacted the same way when, as a teenager, an infected Achilles tendon threatened to ruin his career before it had even begun. He made a vow that, if he recovered, he'd try even harder to succeed.

You don't have to suffer an agonising infection to develop that attitude – in fact, we'd advise against it – but it's important to always stay focused on your goals even when things are at their bleakest. Steve Jobs, remember, was fired by his own company aged 27, and it didn't stop him...

3. 'Do as I say, not as I do' can be an acceptable leadership strategy

As a player Di Canio didn't just reject authority, he pretty much took out a restraining order against it. At AC Milan a heated dressing room dispute with Fabio Capello culminated in the future England manager calling him a 'penis face' and selling him to Celtic. A previous manager at Juventus, current Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni, had already offloaded him after a similar row. When Trapattoni ended up managing Italy a few years later, he was asked whether he'd consider picking Di Canio for his 2002 World Cup squad. 'Only if there's an outbreak of bubonic plague, came the unequivocal reply.

Along with his infamous push on referee Paul Alcock which saw him banned for eleven matches in 1998, it's not hard to see why Di Canio was selected as one of the 'Unmanageables' in a recent Four-Four-Two feature. Yet as a manager Di Canio is a strict disciplinarian, admitting: 'When I see young people showing disrespect to their elders, I go mad'. Indeed, after Swindon striker Leon Clarke got into a row with his new boss in front of the cameras after a match, Di Canio publicly stated he'd never pick the player again. He wasn't joking – Clarke was loaned out to Chesterfield three weeks later, despite having only been signed that month.

If you subscribe to an authoritarian management style, you've got to be unyieldingly strict. 'Discipline is the son of the army,' is Di Canio's new mantra, and at Swindon he gained a reputation as a demanding taskmaster. It seems his old sparring partner Capello was an inspirational figure after all, as Di Canio himself now admits: 'He was a bit of a bastard with me but his management was fantastic. He won everything. With strong players he was ruthless'. If you strive for that style of leadership you have to be the same in the face of rebellion; wine entrepreneurs Ernest & Julio Gallo even launched a lawsuit against their own brother when he appropriated the brand to launch a range of cheeses.

4. Get stuck in at the bottom to succeed at the top

No one could describe being Swindon manager as a glamorous position, and never was it less so than on January 18th this year. With heavy snowfall threatening to postpone a crucial match with Shrewsbury Town the next day, Di Canio grabbed a shovel and helped clear the pitch alongside 200 volunteers (who he then bought a colossal round of pizzas as a reward).

He'd already volunteered to dip into his own pocket a week and a half earlier, offering to pay £30,000 of his own money in order to keep three loanees at the club during a transfer embargo. While the fact the club was in such financial dire straits in the first place doesn't speak hugely of his business acumen – he splashed out on a whopping 38 players in 18 months, ten of whom had their contracts paid up after he lost patience with them – the gesture was appreciated by fans.

Indeed, after initial misgivings, Swindon supporters soon warmed to him, with Di Canio claiming: 'I love Swindon. OK, it's not...Rome or Florence...but it only makes me love Swindon more. The people here are proper people; people who work hard, often for low wages'. His reaction to being offered the Sunderland position was similarly crowd-pleasing: 'When I got the call, I felt fire in my belly. I would have swum to Sunderland to take the job'.

Yet it was results on the pitch that ultimately won Swindon fans over. As he puts it himself: 'There were many, many people who could not believe that Di Canio was the right manager for the club. After two months, there were 9,000 people...singing my name'. The club regained their place in League One at the first attempt last season, and were challenging for a successive promotion when Di Canio resigned last month in protest against 'broken promises' from the new board.

His willingness to do the grunt work is reminiscent of another pizza lover, Pizza Hut boss Jens Hofma, who recently chatted to MT about the benefits of undertaking regular restaurant shifts during his free time. Employees like to feel
like you're working as hard as they are, and there's no better way to prove it than by getting your hands dirty/frostbitten/burned by an over-cooked Hawaiian.

5. Channel your fury against the world into your endeavours

Time was Di Canio kept his Lazio room-mates awake by watching Braveheart on repeat the night before a big game, and his self-motivational techniques have only expanded since: he celebrates every solstice 'in the pagan tradition, with laurel branches' and has also developed an obsession with ancient samurai culture.

Ultimately, though, he is driven by his own passion. 'There are people who still say to me that had I been quieter I could have played for Italy,' he once remarked. 'My answer is this: had I been calmer, I wouldn’t even have made it as a footballer. I give my best when I’m pissed off and when I argue with the entire world.'

Whether you draw your inspiration from Mel Gibson, Yamamoto Tsunetomo or simply your own bottomless reserves of righteous fury, the important thing is to channel it in the right way. Di Canio may have been branded 'the mad Italian', but he's yet to run the length of the pitch brandishing a claymore or attempt hari kari after a disappointing result away from home (although that's not to say he won't). Either way, judging by desperate stories like this appearing in the papers, the Di Canio media furore is starting to ebb. However, you suspect it won't be long before he's the centre of attention yet again...

Read more from our 'Leadership lessons from...' series

Leadership lessons from Chelsea FC's Rafa Benitez

Five leadership lessons from Arsene Wenger

Five leadership lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson


Picture: Hilton1949 at en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

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