Profiles of ethical leadership in sports coaching: Johan Cruyff

This is the second in a month-long series of five posts that discuss successful sports coaches in terms of their ethical leadership qualities. Last Wednesday’s post was about John Wooden, the visionary UCLA basketball coach. Today’s post will focus on Johan Cruyff, the acclaimed Dutch footballer and manager of Ajax, Barcelona, and Catalonia football clubs. Next week, the profile will be about Jim Valvano’s leadership ethic as expressed in the famous speech he gave at the ESPY Awards in 1993, two mere months before he died of cancer. On November 22, the post will be about Vince Lombardi, the NFL Hall of Fame coach, and clues about how he saw ethical leadership based on some of his most famous public statements. The fifth post in this series, on November 29, will study Gregg Popovich, a current NBA coach with a progressive view toward developing his team as both players and people.

Johan Cruyff is widely thought of as one of the greatest football players of all time, having won the Ballon d’Or three times and playing many extremely successful seasons for Ajax (1964-1973) and Barcelona (1973-1978) in club play and the Netherlands (1966-1977) in international play. Cruyff is equally regarded for his impressive achievements as a club manager. His innovations while at the helm of Ajax and Barcelona football clubs laid the generational foundations of coaching philosophy that continue to shape the directions of those teams and their youth academies, as well as those of many others.

To learn more about Cruyff’s life and accomplishments as a player, read this profile from The Guardian published after his death in March 2016.

Cruyff, regarded by many as a technically perfect football player, was able to devote his energy to creative organizational strategies to make the game more cooperative and dynamic. From his perspective, technique went far beyond fundamentals of football that could be learned from rote practice of drills. Rather, real playing ability came from having a fluency and versatility with the game that allowed players to connect to one another and work in an instinctive and flexible system together on the pitch.

Cruyff also receives special mention for his approach to the game that emphasized morality via simplicity of play. While regarding football as a beautiful game, this was not merely based on entertainment value or competitive stakes that might be exciting, but also on efficiency and mental strategy, where the mind’s plan facilitates the body’s actions. This is a powerful consciousness that elevates a deeper existential, internal success over the fleeting external recognition of a win-lose result that was not achieved by a personal commitment to greatness via integrity and discipline.

Cruyff’s strong values toward the game and life are most poignantly embodied in his “14 rules,” which are displayed in each of 200 Cruyff Courts set up in countries all over the world for children to use freely to play football together.   These 14 basic rules are fundamental for all players in football match to follow, but they also provide a guiding philosophy for a values-based approach to life. Applying these as both personal and business management principles allows an individual to seek inner satisfaction and success via connections to and cooperation with others, personal accountability, authenticity, and informed ambition.

Cruyff’s 14 rules, annotated with suggestions for their application to corporate cultural principles in interests of promoting organizational and employee integrity, are as follows:

  1. Team player – To accomplish things, you have to do them together. – True success is achieved by focusing on collaboration and cooperation, not making isolated decisions in disconnected processes.
  2. Responsibility Take care of things as if they were your own. – Individual ownership of risks and recognition of each person’s role in their management is fundamental to any defense strategy as well as necessary for a genuine culture of compliance at all organizational levels.
  3. Respect – Respect one another. – Businesses must have zero tolerance for non-inclusive or abusive behavior; incidences of it must be addressed seriously and mitigated or prevented from reoccurring when possible.
  4. Integration – Involve others when possible. – Work together to share responsibility – invoking praise when duly earned, and liability when risks are not managed.
  5. Initiative Dare to try something new. – Foster and contribute to a culture of speaking up and out. Challenge heuristics and routines which can drive unethical decision making and narrow cognitive frameworks.
  6. Coaching Always help each other within a team. – Regard the organization as an interdependent unit to support an integrated style of decision-making and working.
  7. Personality Be yourself. – People should maintain their personal code of ethics and sense of right and wrong that they have in life, at work. Good people should not be afraid or unable to do good things.
  8. Social involvement – Interaction is crucial, both in sport and in life. – Be active champions for ethical processes and work together to promote them. Isolation is toxic to collective integrity.
  9. Technique – Know the basics. – Have or get the information needed to remain in constructive compliance with rules, regulations, and laws. Stay up to date or in front of them.
  10. Tactics – Know what to do. – Have a strategy that is flexible but driven by defined values and a thoughtful understanding of risks. Prepare work based on a plan and in agreed terms.
  11. Development – Sport strengthens body and soul. – Stay up to date or in front of the guidelines that form the controls framework. Feed-forward ideas, letting future productivity benefit from past performance.
  12. Learning – Try to learn something new every day. – Be open to and informed about different perspectives and opportunities. Seek knowledge and evaluate strategy based on it, not based on what is easy or fast.
  13. Play together – An essential part of any game. – Share values and manage risks by working together. Don’t be solicited for advice or seek an opinion; have an evolving and ongoing relationship.
  14. Creativity – Bring beauty to the sport. – Be passionate and on the lookout for novel approaches that will provide elegant solutions to dilemmas.

Cruyff’s 14 rules are about so much more than football or sport. These rules are succinct, relatable suggestions for how to live a moral life in harmony with others and in pursuit of self-sustaining accomplishments. This emphasis on values drives intellectual curiosity, physical effort, mental development, and individual accountability. These powerful principles promote integrity in all areas of life and work.

To learn more about Johan Cruyff and his undeniable legacy in football and leadership, check out this Football’s Greatest feature on him:

Also, make sure to read next Wednesday’s post, when this series continues on to look at Jim Valvano, a famed NCAA basketball coach and, later, broadcaster and motivational speaker, and his legendary speech at the first ESPY Awards in 1993 which makes a powerful, simple statement on integrity and internal success.

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