FIFA: Four Illustrations of Flawed Action

Money is not dangerous, unless you buy power. 

Philosopher Karl Popper

FIFA, the world governing body for International Football (Soccer), has had (to put it mildly) a bad week.

  • Bribery

  • Racketeering

  • Graft

  • Corruption

  • Conspiracy

Words more often associated with organized crime than with a major league sport.

FIFA is embroiled in a massive scandal.  The US Department of Justice has indicted nine of its officials and five of its corporate executives on charges of taking $150 Million in bribes.

(This comes after other FIFA officials were convicted of similar crimes two years ago.)

Money & Power:  they’ve been snaring leaders for centuries.FIFA (and its cash cow, the World Cup) has generated over $5.7 Billion in the last four years. Allegations of corruption at FIFA date back decades.

FIFA leadership’s consistent response over this time?  Take a blind eye and keep a closed mouth.

Crises offer leadership “moments of truth”: times when a leader’s true colors come out.

FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, is offering a cautionary tale for the rest of us on how not to act in a crisis.

Here are four illustrations of Blatter’s flawed actions in leading through this crisis:

1.  Silence

This scandal broke on Wednesday morning.  For more than 24 hours, Blatter did not speak publicly.  All public appearances were cancelled.  Questions directed to Blatter were handled by FIFA’s director of communications,  Walter de Gregorio.   When asked about any pressure on Blatter to resign, de Gregorio replied:

The president is not involved, so how can you say he has to step down? He was not involved.  He is quite relaxed, he knows and it has been confirmed today that he is not involved.

As a leader, going into hiding during a crisis sends a clear message about your unwillingness to deal with issues directly and honestly.   Yellow card to Blatter.

2.  Lack of Ownership

As if the comments of “he is not involved” weren’t enough, when Blatter finally did speak up (Thursday), his words attempted to separate the actions of FIFA from his own leadership. In other words, rather than take ownership of the problem, he deflected responsibility as the leader at the helm during this time.  He stated:

many soccer hold me ultimately responsible for the actions and reputation of the global football community, whether it’s the destination of the hosting of a World Cup or a corruption scandal.

Notice:  he doesn’t say “I hold myself responsible”: Observers do.

Then, he goes on to justify the lack of oversight:

We, or I, cannot monitor everyone all of the time. If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it.The buck stops exactly…where? Clearly, not at Blatter’s desk.Blatter continued,

But it must also fall to me to be responsible for the reputation of our entire organization, and to find a way to fix things.This attempt seems half-hearted.  It must?  Or it does?

Is Blatter saying he takes responsibility, or that he ought to take responsibility?  And when exactly will that happen?

When times are good, great leaders give credit to others.When times are hard, great leaders take the blame for the problem.

Blatter did neither.

Yellow card #2 for Blatter:  Lack of Ownership.

3. Opacity

Keeping things opaque is the close cousin of staying silent.  Let’s face it:  if you know you’re doing something wrong and you don’t want to be found out, you keep things under wraps.In 2013, FIFA hired an outside official, former US attorney Michael Garcia, to investigate corruption within its ranks. Yet, FIFA refused to publish Garcia’s full final report.  FIFA claimed that while the investigation had uncovered a few bad apples, the whole organization was “cleared”.   (Oops. So much for that theory.)In fact, Garcia was so upset by FIFA’s refusal to publish the report, he resigned his position.

There’s no accident that transparency has become part of the leadership lexicon.  FIFA’s governance (and its vague accounting for millions of dollars) has kept outside eyes from prying too closely into the actual workings of how business is done.  This has allowed corruption to thrive.

Yellow card #3 for being opaque.

4.  Playing Favorites to Keep Power

If this was an actual football match, Blatter would have been ejected after two yellow cards.

But he continues to play at leading.   In fact, the clearest message Blatter has sent this week is that he refuses to abdicate his reign at all costs.

Many FIFA officials (including the head of USA soccer) have called for him to step down.

These latest arrests and indictments of FIFA officials on Wednesday were timed to occur right before FIFA’s presidential election, which is going on today (Friday).

Yet, even with all of the controversy swirling around him, Blatter is expected to win handily.

How can this be?

FIFA operates on a “one country, one vote” system. This keeps the status quo in power, as FIFA  takes the global revenue pie and redistributes it, giving much more to smaller member countries.  In exchange, their leadership gets overwhelming support.

Many of the smaller member countries are expected to re-elect Blatter.  Because the pull for continued revenue is so strong, they won’t let go of this old system, even though the overall integrity of FIFA is at an all-time low.  (Major advertisers are threatening to pull out of World Cup sponsorship if they don’t clean up their act.)

Playing favorites to say in power:  another penalty card.

Silence, Lack of Ownership, Opacity, Playing Favorites.  Which of these traits have you seen in leadership?  What damage has it done?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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