Leadership For the Masses: A Summer of Integral Leadership Revelation

Integral for the Masses / January 2008

Keith BellamyThe heavens punish us by giving us what we wish for, or so the old saying goes. At a meeting of the Management Review Board for the ILR. I argued for the need to have specialized or focused editions of this august organ. Whilst I was my normal loquacious and persuasive self in the debate, I felt that my seeds of logic had fallen on stony ground; so nobody was more surprised than myself when Russ announced that this current issue would be focused on Integral Leadership from a Dutch perspective.

However, with the announcement came a sting in the tail. Normally I have to be reminded that my column needs to be connected with Leadership from an Integral perspective. For this issue, I was asked not only to follow those guidelines but also to give it a sprinkling from the Lowlands. Basically, be yourself. Just write about Leadership from both an Integral and a Dutch perspective. Talk about drying up the well of creative juices with a single guideline.

Don’t get me wrong. I really love the Netherlands. Where else can a linguistically challenged Brit go and find that most of the population not only speak English, but do so much better than those who use is as our singular mother tongue? Well probably most countries in the world these days as English has become the lingua franca of the business world. The point is that as an impressionable youth visiting Amsterdam held out so much more of a welcoming spirit than say Paris or Madrid. The Beer was drinkable, there was a wealth of culture with which we shared an entangled history, and of course there was the certain district about which we shall say no more.

But as I pondered on this modified mission that I had been sent my mind started to wander back to the summer of 1974. Not only was this the year that I graduated from university, and I was about to tackle all of the problems facing the planet at the time. World peace; Eradication of starvation; Cure for cancer; these would all be tackled before breakfast giving me the remainder of the day to focus on my second greatest passion of the time, football.

A quick note for our American Cousins: When I talk of football, I mean the game played with 11 players on each side using a spherical ball that is primarily maneuvered by use of the feet, hence the term “Football”. The players wear the minimum of protective equipment and play for a full 90 minutes with a relative paucity of interruptions and time-outs. I know that your name for this game is soccer, but it is anathema to probably 90% of the planet and I beg your indulgence that when you read the word football below you make the automatic translation.

1974 was the year of the World Cup Final that brought 16 of the best international football teams from around the globe (although sadly not including England) to West Germany, for a festival of sheer delight and artistry. The revelation of the tournament was the Orange wonders from Holland. Under the leadership of Rinus Michaels from the sidelines and the captainship of Johann Cryff on the field all but the most partial of observers of this competition were held spellbound by the display and mastery of the game that they loved. Just as the Dutch Masters redefined art during the reformation, so the Netherlands football team was responsible for a total transformation of the sport.

As “the people’s game” across 5 continents, football has provided many insights into the nature of life, the beliefs and values of not just those who played the game, but also the communities that supported their local and national teams. In many cities around Europe, teams were often associated with a particular religious affiliation. When Glasgow Rangers played Glasgow Celtic, for 90 minutes 400 years of Protestant & Catholic battle were reenacted in front of the faithful. It was tribal, it was punctuated with myths, it was controlled by a set of rules and everybody knew just what to expect.

Players individually attained a high level of skill and fitness but were driven by the need to score more goals than the opposing team. The collective nature of the team up until the emergence of the 1974 Dutch team was highly organized and structured. Every player had a particular role to play and a job to do against the opposition. Sure there were different tactics such as zone defending or man to man marking; but as a professional player you knew that if somebody was a “left winger” then he would play his game on the left wing and you could prepare your players to contain or negate his influence.

As a visionary, Rinus Michaels saw an opportunity to totally transform the game. And in a captain of the caliber of Johann Cruyff he had a lieutenant who could translate his vision into action on the field. It would be wrong to assume that the type of football that we were treated to in the summer of ’74 was revolutionary. Michaels and Cruyff had been refining their approach at the Dutch side Ajax, but this was the first time that most of us outside of the confines of the Lowlands were allowed to see its majesty and grace at the greatest pageant for the people’s game.

What the Dutch team introduced was a concept that quickly acquired the term “total football” but with over 30 years to reflect upon those games, I think “Integral Football” would be a much better term. There were so many innovations in the way the Dutch played that I could possibly take up the rest of the space in this edition of ILR waxing lyrically about how there is not a major team playing anywhere in the world that has not been affected by the revelations that we saw that summer.

The first thing that Michaels did was release his players from their strict definitions of roles and responsibilities. In his mind the 11 players on the team were footballers, and not centre-forwards or right-backs or even attacking-midfielders. Every player was schooled in just the fundamentals of the game (when you have the ball, keep it, pass it and score; when they have the ball win it back as soon as possible). The Dutch players broke all the unwritten rules. The left-winger would go to the right wing and then drop back into the centre of defense only to have his position taken or covered by a colleague. The team was mercurial; commentators gave up trying to predict what might happen next. It was poetry in motion and as an impartial viewer you felt distressed when the referee eventually blew his whistle for the end of the match.

If breaking the restrictive roles of the players were all that Michaels and Cruyff had achieved that summer, the world of football would have been completely in their debt. But they didn’t stop there; they transformed the game further by not only creating a team that was totally inclusive including the substitutes on the bench but also by creating an understanding that bordered on the telepathic. Dutch players could be swapped at will and the rest of the team immediately adapted to the strengths and weaknesses of the new addition. Without looking up every player knew exactly where all of his teammates were and where they were about to move. As one British TV commentator said, “it’s as if they know the next 10 moves of every one of their colleagues is about to make.”

The fascinating thing was that if one were not aware of the training and approach that Michaels had adopted, one would not be aware of the leadership skills that he had honed and instilled in his players. Whilst Cruyff would be the de facto general and take care of such activities as introducing dignitaries to the team and remonstrating with the referee when he made a decision that was perceived to be unfair, when the whistle was blown and for the next 90 minutes every person on the team was both a leader and a follower at the same time. Most importantly, this dichotomous situation did not affect the players one iota. Everybody was a playmaker and a defender, sometimes at the same time.

Sadly, there was no fairytale ending with Cruyff lifting the trophy after the final match. With all the plaudits and accolades that had been placed upon the Dutch team and their approach to the game, some of the players started to believe their own press ant their potential to walk on water. This took the edge off of the Dutch team in the final against the home side West Germany. The Germans played a robust and mechanistic game relying on their physicality to intimidate Cruyff and Co. With the crowd acting like a 12th and 13th man for the home team, the challenge that the integral footballers had was their stiffest of the whole tournament.

The record books will show that the final score in this final was 2-1 to the Germans. But all but the most biased of home team supporters will say that the real winner that day was the game of football. Anybody who is serious about Integral Leadership could do no harm but to watch and study the games played by the Holland Team in 1974. The worst that might happen is that you might see some of the most talented sporting artistry of the 20th Century. More likely than not you will gain insights into Integral Leadership that a library of articles and books will never be able to convey so eloquently.