Leadership lessons from Sepp Blatter

The FIFA boss's downfall shows us that power can corrupt - and you'll eventually be found out.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 08 Oct 2015

Had Sigmund Freud been an architect, he would have probably approved of the design of the FIFA headquarters building in Zurich: two-thirds of it is underground, much like the repressed dark side tendencies that Freud ascribed to the human unconscious. Freud also noted that unless we are capable of self-control, our repressed dark side will be expressed in situ, emerging as anti-social symptoms.

Sepp Blatter would have been a perfect case study for Freud. A despotic leader who rises to the top by inhibiting the toxic aspects of his personality, but is eventually hijacked by them. You can clearly not fool all the people all the time.

It would surely be naive to think that corruption in FIFA started only with Blatter, but his predecessors were arguably better at faking it - or exercising self-control. Integrity is in the eye of the beholder, and when everybody in the world thinks you are corrupt, people will line up to bring you down, if only to exercise the role of a moral authority. Everybody needs enemies; Blatter was low-hanging fruit for anybody desperate for a populist image boost. Moral acts rarely come that cheap.

Perhaps Blatter's biggest mistake was to forget that much of the success underlying Swiss institutions - and the Swiss brand - relies on being subtle, low-key and flying low under the radar. Swiss brands are the exact opposite of Kanye West, even if they manage to appeal to him.

In any event, there are three important lessons to be learned from Sepp Blatter, which any aspiring manager should take on board.

Reputation matters: It is the key currency and when leaders are too corrupt, their self-image is so distorted that they fail to understand how others see them.

Character is fate: No matter how politically astute you are, in the end your character will be revealed. A toxic personality contains the seeds of your self-destruction.

Leadership is an ugly game: When pathologically ambitious people rise to the top and their megalomaniac power drive is reinforced by their success, it is hard to play a beautiful game.

Professional sports are the opium of the masses, but Blatter got high on his own supply. FIFA will need to appoint a moral emblem to clean up its image, much like the Vatican did when it appointed Pope Francis.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, people analytics, and talent management. He is the CEO of Hogan Assessments and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University. Follow Professor Chamorro-Premuzic on Twitter: @drtcp

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