How to be a trusted leader: a response to the agenda of power, corruption & pies – FIFA’s deficit of trust in football

Generations of top-ranking FIFA officials have engaged in ‘rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted’ corruption which has poisoned world football for decades, it was claimed last week, as two separate criminal investigations sparked the biggest crisis in the history of the sport.

Nine officials at football’s governing body accepted bribes and kickbacks over more than 20 years, in return for awarding lucrative tournaments to certain countries, rigging FIFA’s own elections. On the same day, Swiss authorities announced a separate investigation into ‘criminal mismanagement and money laundering’ surrounding the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in Russia and Qatar, throwing the future of both tournaments into doubt.

A 47-count charge sheet filed in a New York federal court detailed 12 separate corrupt schemes allegedly carried out by FIFA officials. In total, they are alleged to have accepted bribes amounting to more than $150m over a 24-year period beginning in 1991.

It was the ugliest day in the history of the beautiful game. Football’s theatre of the absurd has been located firmly in Zurich these last few days. It began with the Feds marching into the five-star Baur au Lac hotel to drag FIFA’s executives from their beds. The choreography of the arrests brought to mind the climactic baptism scene in The Godfather, except that on this occasion it was the mafia that was on the receiving end.

At a press conference, Chief Richard Weber of the IRS Criminal Investigation unit described what the men had done as ‘the World Cup of fraud’. It developed into the hugely restorative spectacle of US Attorney General Loretta Lynch laying out in detail precisely the kind of kick-backs and dirty money, stating that the officials had used their positions of trust to ‘solicit bribes over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament. The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted’.

Outside the FIFA bubble, there was nothing unexpected about what happened last Wednesday. The only surprise is perhaps that it has taken so long. There has been little secret for years about the high-living corruption of the self-perpetuating freemasonry that is FIFA. Corruption is, quite simply, what they do. Corruption is tolerated as long as the money is spread around.

The impunity of FIFA, against the backdrop of skulduggery, saw the arrests provoking Schadenfreude as the extent of the racketeering unfolded. American extraterritorial jurisdiction is often excessive in its zeal and overbearing in its methods, but in this instance it deserves the gratitude of football fans everywhere.

And then it collapsed and got worse into what we witnessed on Friday – the noiseless, compliant procession of FIFA delegates into voting booths, to the backdrop of anaesthetising elevator music, where they calmly re-elected the man who has presided over the dismemberment of the notion that football is the people’s game.

Welcome to Seppocracy where the name of FIFA’s president is a joke across the world. Things fell apart. The centre held. With FIFA’s top executives locked up in detention centres, world football’s governing body voted resoundingly for four more years of the same. Against a backdrop of US authorities warning of further charges in their investigation, president Sepp Blatter was re-elected despite the crisis engulfing the organisation.

Blatter defied critics and opponents to secure a fifth term at the helm, and vowed to fix things ‘Starting tomorrow. I’m being held accountable for the storm. I will shoulder that responsibility’ – Blatter appeared to discount his own responsibility for the scandal. It could yet prove a pyrrhic victory for Blatter, but what happened to the notion of a leader taking responsibility for everything that happens on his watch?

FIFA could have responded to the arrests of many of its top executives by showing that it grasps what has finally happened to the credibility of world football, and stood Blatter down. Instead, most of FIFA put its fingers firmly in its ears. Having it both ways may not be high-minded or noble, human beings are conflicted and contradictory. Gambling and graft have always been sporting competition’s bedfellows, and sport from Pericles to Putin has always been shot through with politics, but this goes beyond the pale.

But it didn’t matter. FIFA doesn’t do opinion polls. It didn’t break. Not enough people, in the end fancied washing their hands of complicit guilt and starting afresh. A handful of blazers behind bars was never going to be enough to persuade them. What cancer reacts to the sudden severity of its own symptoms by curing itself?

The name of FIFA and Blatter is a joke on every football terrace in England, but it can make no difference. The fan, after all, is only where the money comes from, but who has been cut out of the process. FIFA, with its lunches and watches and private planes and five star hotels, exists as the tax on their passion, and it comes without representation.

Trust, a leadership virtue and a core trait of any organisation culture, is patently missing here by some margin, and for me is the most striking issue we need to consider. A fish rots from the head, so it’s no surprise. There is an absolute unspoken trust deficit in FIFA. Certainly frequent headlines reinforce scepticism about who is worthy of trust closer to home, from lying politicians and corrupt bankers, to cheating drug-taking athletes and misdeeds from senior police officers and boardrooms, it’s no surprise trust levels continue at historic lows, but Blatter and FIFA have set new moral lows.

The law in ancient Rome required the engineer who built an arch to be the first to stand beneath it. Perhaps if the impact of the actions of our leaders were as publically visible, we wouldn’t be facing diminishing trust levels in most of our workplaces.

The unspoken toll of the leadership trust deficit in any business impacts productivity, engagement and creativity. Fortunately, most leaders aren’t involved in deliberate trust deceptions at work, for most of us, the good news is that authentic trust, the kind we need in our workplaces, is sought by the vast majority of leaders. If your culture is right, relationships matter more than outcomes to those who practice authentic trust.

A recent study found that 82% of employees say being able to trust their leaders is crucial to their work performance. Yet as important as trust is to high performance, engagement, and innovation, trust workplace levels remain low. The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer found ‘an alarming evaporation of trust across all institutions, reaching the lows of the 2009 recession’.

Yet, when it comes to the people we work with and for, most of us ignore these headlines and judge for ourselves. By observing what organisational leaders say and what they do – their behavioural integrity – we decide to give, or not give, our trust to them. We also perceive through their actions if we’re valued and trusted by them, or not.

As a leader, you need to grow an awareness and sensitivity about everything that matters when building trust. What if you could start by seeing your actions from the lens of those you lead and need to influence? Or listen in on their thoughts? How much trust currency do you have with those you lead or influence? What do your actions compared to your words communicate? What trust-enhancing or trust-diminishing messages are you sending by how you do what you do?

Let’s look at the key trust issues in terms of leaders and followers, and from a leadership perspective, how do you create trust? I think there are just a handful of key issues to consider.

The whole-self Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric identified ‘three appeals of the heart’ to influence others and to build trust:

  • Ethos – your credibility and trustworthiness. If others don’t buy you as a person and believe in you first, they won’t buy you as a leader. Convince them you have the soundness of character required.
  • Logos – it’s about the logic and reasons you put forward to appeal to the rational mind. It’s not just facts, but a sound structured basis to what you’re saying. Simply, do you show common sense?
  • Pathos – the emotions you express when communicating with others, and the emotion you elicit in them, are key. You need to win hearts as well as minds, so be passionate, energising and enthusiastic.

Besides the ‘whole-self’, trust is then built by a combination of credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-awareness:

Credibility People are more likely to trust a leader who they regard as a credible, authoritative individual. The language used helps to assess your credibility, as does your level of confidence when talking about a particular subject. When faced with someone who is well regarded as a leader, we defer to their experience and place credence on their views.

Leaders can strengthen their personal credibility by continuing to develop their knowledge and skill set. Demonstrating continual professional development is a key element of showing credibility. Credibility and credentials are important.  Authority is one of the major recognised factors of influence – but don’t feel the need to try too hard.

Be like the Roman engineer, whatever your work and its associated actions, operate as if you must publically stand for your results. Trust can’t be built without personal accountability grounded in consistent and trustworthy actions. That includes acknowledging when trust was broken.

Reliability This one’s obvious isn’t it, so I don’t need to say much. As a leader, say what you’re going to do and then do what you say you’re going to do. Deliver on your promises, even the small ones, and don’t let people down. Flaming enthusiasm, backed by horse sense and persistence, is the quality that most frequently makes for success – Dale Carnegie.

Genuine passion and enthusiasm about your work, evidenced by being consistently reliable to your people, and your desire to help, are attractive qualities. Everything about you either says or doesn’t say ‘reliable’. You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.

Own your role in what happens. We all make mistakes unintentionally. We all impact relationships from time to time by our actions at work. But the difference in creating openness for trust to be restored is the difference between seeing yourself as a passenger along for the ride or as the responsible driver culpable for your missteps. Own what’s yours.

Intimacy A good leader connects emotionally, building sincere, long-term relationships, not seeking short-term ‘speed dating’ encounters. You have to be prepared to invest genuine personal time in with your folks beyond the reporting line. Show your folks you have genuine interest in them as people, not simply you being their manager. Listening is the key skill here. This naturally strengthens the relationship as you are making them feel valued. People will then feel comfortable talking with you about difficult agendas.

Even though your co-workers won’t all become your best friends, it is a good base point that they know you as a person. Likeability is a huge factor of influence. Making emotional connections is a key tenet in creating and sustaining trust – people are persuaded by reason, but moved by emotion.

The power of intimacy, shown by behavioural integrity, the alignment of actions and words, can’t be overstated. How will people perceive your actions from this point on? Don’t give anyone any reason to doubt your trustworthiness, or your intentions.

Self-awareness Be yourself; everybody else is taken, said Oscar Wilde. A trusted leader sincerely places others’ interests in front of their own. There is no greater source of distrust than a leader who appears to be more interested in himself. We must be sincere, have our self-orientation under control, and focus on the person in front of us as an individual.

As Steven Covey said, Seek first to understand and then to be understood. People can sense when you lack self-awareness, relationships never develop beyond the civil stage. Transparency is a critical factor in building trusted relationships, folks will warm to you if you are true to yourself and are straight with them in expressing your views. If you want people to reveal their true feelings and their thoughts you need to start the ball rolling by being your authentic self, being self-aware and saying what you really think.

Operate with an inner mirror. Watch yourself be yourself. Are you operating from good intentions or manipulative self-interests? Are you honouring your commitments and fulfilling your promises? Would you trust you?

Trust is not a matter of technique but of character. We are trusted because of our way of being, not because of our polished exteriors or our expertly crafted communications. The glue that holds all relationships together, including the relationship between the leader and the led, is trust based on integrity.

Abraham Lincoln, being no Sepp Blatter, only ever won the right to give two inaugural addresses, not five, and is acknowledged as one of the most trustworthy leaders of all time. Perhaps he should have been better at dodging bullets like Blatter. Hypocrisy was the winner as FIFA voted for yet more Blatter, and a vacuum of trust. Yet for me it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest, that holds human associations together.

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