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Gianfranco Zola talks leadership

Footballer Gianfranco Zola has made the leap from player to coach. Des Dearlove talks leadership with the Chelsea legend.

By Des Dearlove 28 August 2013

Footballer Gianfranco Zola has made the leap from player to coach. Des Dearlove talks leadership with the Chelsea legend and manager of Watford.


Gianfranco Zola talks leadershipAt Chelsea, Zola became synonymous with attacking élan, and he won the FA Cup twice, the League Cup, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. He was also voted Football Writers’ Player of the Year in 1997 and Chelsea’s greatest ever player. No one has worn his number 25 shirt since. Capped 35 times for Italy, Zola began his managerial career with West Ham in 2008, after a spell as assistant coach of the Italian national under-21 team under Pierluigi Casiraghi. In July 2012, he was confirmed as manager of Watford and in 2012-13 led the Championship side to the brink of promotion to the premiership. Zola talked to Des Dearlove.


DD When did you first realise you had a special talent with a football?

GZ It was in 1984 when I was 19-years old playing for a team in Sardinia called Nuorese. I went there as a young player with potential. In the first year I only played two or three games, but I was promising. The second year, the club went bankrupt so we were relegated and I had to play because I was one of the few players who remained. That year I had an unbelievable season. I didn’t know I was able to play like that. Don’t ask me why it happened because I don’t know. I must have learnt a lot the year before because when I got my chance it came to me completely. And that is the first moment I realised I had that gift.

DD Do you still get butterflies in your stomach before a game?

GZ Yes. That never goes away.

DD You’ve played with some of the very best players in the world. Did you ever have any doubts as a player that you were good enough?

GZ No. It’s very important that you are confident in your own ability. You have to walk onto the pitch with that confidence. It can be misinterpreted as arrogance, but it’s not; it’s just that you are sure of what you are doing. You know you are good at it and you know you’re going to perform. You have to have that kind of arrogance as a player.

DD You don’t come across as arrogant. You seem like a modest person?

GZ That is my natural manner because I’m a shy person. But trust me, inside I know that I’m going to do a job. If you are shy it is even more important to be confident because otherwise you can come across as smaller than you are. But inside I know what I can do and I know I will do it. I always had that confidence inside me. It is very important that you never doubt yourself. You go on the pitch and you have to do certain things. It is especially important for a player like me because the way I play football is quite risky. I have to take risks otherwise my game won’t be the same. And in order to do that, you have to be 100 per cent sure that you’re doing the right things. The only problems came when I didn’t feel like that — when instead of having a lion inside, I had a rabbit inside. That’s when I didn’t have a good game.

DD How difficult have you found the transition from footballer to manager — it’s still football but it’s different?

GZ That’s right — it’s completely different. When you are a footballer you tend to sort situations out in a certain way. You know what you have to do. You want to get the ball and maybe take one player on, two players on and smash the ball to the corner. But as a manager you have to think of other ways to make things happen. It’s a completely different job and that’s where I struggled at the beginning. When I was on the touchline and there was a problem I still approached it wearing my number 25 shirt. I was still thinking like a player rather than working it out in a different way as a manager. So it’s a completely different approach requiring completely different skills. The fact that you play the game and you have played it at all levels gives you the background to know the right option to take. But as a manager you have to make things happen in a different way. You know what is coming and that allows you to take the right measures.

DD But the reputation that you bring as a player means that you have instant respect from the players. That must help?

GZ Yes, but it only lasts five minutes! You’ve got their attention — their immediate attention. But the respect you get from them later depends on what you give to them, what you tell them. If they see that you’re working for them then you keep their respect. That’s what I’ve learnt from my experiences. So yes, I take advantage of the fact that I’ve been a good footballer, they know me, they saw me doing good things, but then you have to work every day to make sure that the respect is well-deserved. And so you need to make sure that you’re always giving them something.

DD There are some very successful managers like José Mourinho who were never professional players. Is that a disadvantage?

GZ It may actually be an advantage! It means they come to the job of manager with an open mind. It allows them to see things the way they really are. If you are a footballer with 20 years’ experience you approach the game based on what you learned as a player. But your previous experience may not be helpful or typical. Most of your perceptions come from your emotional responses when you’re under pressure and you were feeling either very high or very low. So the perception that you have from the past may not be accurate. So sometimes it’s good if people come with a fresh mind. They have their own perceptions; they study a lot and they become good managers. The ones that have been good footballers before they became managers, they really have to work on themselves. They have to get away from their own perfection. You have to pick up the experience that you had as a player and then analyse it again to see what it tells you as a manager rather than a player.

DD So how do you see a football match now?

GZ I see it in two ways. I can watch it as I used to as a player — where I just watch the ball. Or I can watch the game as a manager. I can watch and think, “why is that player in that position?” Or, “where is the midfield — why aren’t they there?” It’s a different mind-set.

DD Can you switch between the two?

GZ I’m working on that! But at the beginning the tendency was to sit and relax and watch and see the good things. So you notice certain things but you don’t notice others. Our minds can be logical or not. When your mind is being logical you see little details that you might not have noticed before. Or you can watch the big strokes that give you the general picture. And you need to be able to switch between the two, which is what I’m trying to get better at.

DD When you’re watching a big match on the TV that doesn’t involve your team, do you analyse it as a manager?

GZ Yes.

DD So do you watch it and think I wouldn’t be making that substitution, or they need to change their shape?

GZ Yes, I do. Actually it’s an exercise for me. You have to do that because you have to get better as a manager. You need to get the mentality. So far I’ve done 20 years as a professional footballer and two years as a manager, so I have to make sure all the time that I’m coaching the other skillset and bringing on the other part of me.

DD So watching Match of the Day is a management workout?

GZ Yes, it’s a good workout!

DD How would you describe your leadership style? Is it something you think about?

GZ It’s a work in progress. I’ve got my beliefs, my values and when I manage I try to use those values. And sometimes I realise that I’m dodging issues or trying to find the right balance because you have to accommodate different aspects. And you have to be honest with yourself when you are working it out. I am still working on that.

DD What sorts of values do you mean? Do you mean football values — the way you want to play?

GZ No, I mean other sorts of values. When you work with a community of people, for example, you might try to give everyone in that community importance. So in football terms, giving everyone importance means that you play everyone. Now, you can’t make it completely fair all of the time, but I try to make sure that everyone gets a game, as you probably do in your team. Not only do you play your best team, your best players, sometimes you leave some good ones out because you want to give everyone a chance.

Now, obviously when you manage a professional team that is not a youth team anymore and is a business, then you have to strike the right balance.

DD You have to make hard decisions?

GZ Yes, and sometimes you might have to make a compromise. You have to be pragmatic. Maybe you have two players that always play and maybe you don’t play players who are training very well. You know they deserve to play but you cannot play them at this time because you have to play the best ones. And these are the issues that you have to deal with.

DD At Harvard Business School they’ve written a case study of the leadership style of Alex Ferguson. Do you think business managers can learn much from football managers?

GZ I’ve never been a businessman so I don’t know what is required to be a businessman — but why not? I believe that at the end of the day even a businessman has to deal with people. And no matter what you do, whether you are a footballer, a banker, a politician, or whatever, it is always the same. We are all human beings; we change the way we dress but we are all human beings and the dynamics within a group are always the same. And if you understand the dynamics of handling a group well, then you just change the clothes and the situation and you’re still going to be successful. So I believe that if you can manage one group of people, you can be successful doing something else.

DD You’ve obviously thought a lot about how you can make yourself a better leader?

GZ I knew that if you want to do this job you have to really have notions of that. As a footballer I realised that the mental side is very important, because you need to get rid of the idea that everyone thinks like you do. It’s not like that. That has been a big realisation for me. I think it’s a common mistake that many, many people make. I still do it sometimes because it’s such a difficult thing to overcome.

DD Leadership is one of those things that you never stop working at. The minute you think you understand it and you’ve got it, that’s the moment it starts to slip away?

GZ Yes. I dedicate at least one hour a day to this. It’s more important that you learn to handle the leadership issues rather than handling how to make a presentation or how to prepare a game. These things are important but the leadership part is more important.

DD I’ve spoken to CEOs who haven’t thought about it as much as you have! What do you say to your players at half time when it’s not going well? Do you shout?

GZ It depends. I normally don’t like to shout but sometimes you have to because you want a reaction from the players. You want to trigger a response so sometimes you have to shout.

DD Do you speak to the players differently as individuals? Do you have different ways of managing different players?

GZ Yes. I’m much better in one-on-one situations. When I speak one-on-one or to small groups I feel more comfortable and I believe that they learn more. When I speak to a larger group it’s very easy for them to hide and also it’s very difficult for me to put across the points to all of them. Maybe I want to speak to a particular player, but I will make the point carefully because I don’t want that player to feel bad in front of everybody. If you point out a mistake that one person has made then even if it is not meant to be a serious criticism it can seem very personal and be taken in a bad way. When it’s needed I speak to everyone. But I prefer to talk to them in smaller groups.

DD That’s interesting that you’ve analysed it, that you know that about yourself and try to be authentic?

GZ You have to be yourself and players soon figure out if you aren’t being true to yourself. So if you are really hard on them, then maybe at the beginning they will listen to you. And some managers do that. But then when they get to the top they will react anyway. But I don’t believe you have to make them afraid to gain their respect. If they realise that you are working for them and you’re doing everything for them, the job is done. They will listen to you and they will do everything you want without shouting, without screaming or anything.

DD Human beings are very good at picking up when someone’s not being authentic as well. It is little tiny things that give it away.

GZ Absolutely, that’s why I think when you’re going in front of people, whether you’re talking, you’re teaching them or you’re lecturing them, whatever you want to do, just make sure that you are right inside. You know exactly what you’re doing and you are completely comfortable in what you’re doing and then go and do that. Otherwise it’s not going to be effective.

DD But inevitably in football you’ve got young men full of testosterone, talented, fit, strong young men, egos in the room, because some people have bigger egos than others. How do you manage that?

GZ That’s a very good question. We are all different obviously. The way I deal with you is different probably than the way I deal with someone else because of your different personalities. And you cannot fight with a player all the time just because he’s got a stronger personality. But that player has to know that there are boundaries — he needs to know what is important. And maybe you are comfortable with those boundaries being closer, and maybe for another player we have to make those boundaries a little bit larger. But the boundaries are still there because it’s important that they realise that there’s a limit. That’s how I try to deal with different people with different egos.

DD Does that mean that if someone’s more talented they get more space?

GZ No, it depends on their personality. This is not about the talent, it’s about the personality and no they don’t get treated differently because of their talent. Otherwise it would be a problem because if you score a goal you are allowed to do anything you want. No, I think it would be a bad lesson for everyone. So, everyone has got boundaries, as I said. Then, depending on their temperament you can allow them some space. If somebody shouts or screams because he loses a game, or he shouts about somebody, you can understand that.

You let him speak and then maybe you remind him that we’re all together and everyone makes mistakes. But if I intervene as soon as he starts shouting, then I’m crashing against his personality and that’s going to make him worse. At that point it’s going to be his personality against mine. I don’t let it come to that; I don’t want to fight the players. I want to make them realise what they have to do. So maybe I let him shout a little bit and then I will tell him. That’s how I deal with these issues.

DD As a professional sportsman, you have to harness the desire to win and the fear of failure and all those things. But fear of failure can also be paralysing. So how do you harness that fear of failure and make it into a positive?

GZ That is an excellent question and my personal view is that in order to beat the fear you have to focus on the things that you can make a difference with. And so I always keep reminding my players that when they go on to the pitch the only thing they have to be thinking is what they have to do on the pitch, so the duties they have. And I try to make sure that they have that. And I try not to force their fear. And this is a question all the time. I don’t point out the importance of the game in terms of winning it. I always point out the importance of the performance.

DD Doing it right?

GZ That’s what I try to do. That’s my personal approach to this. Whether it’s right or wrong, I don’t know. I would love to say, well, that’s the solution, but it’s not. I think for me as a footballer, the problem was when my mind used to go on to things that were not important, like the pressure, what the newspapers might say tomorrow, judgement from the other players. They are not things that can help you. The only things where I could make a difference was kicking the ball in a certain way and that’s what I tried to do, and that’s what I say to the players all the time, to keep your mind occupied on the things that really matter and where you can make a difference, which are, as I said, playing football in the right way and making the movements.

DD I know your management career is just beginning really, and you’re doing a fantastic job here at the moment.

GZ Thank you.

DD But have you ever had a Kevin Keegan moment? Kevin Keegan walked away from the England manager job because he watched a game England lost and he felt totally out of his depth. Have you ever felt that as a manager?

GZ Many, many times. That’s the first reaction. Then the second reaction is that I go home and I relax and think about it, and then that’s where my background comes in. I grew up with the idea that nothing will break me. I will always come back stronger from any situation. And so my first reaction might be like that, but then I go home and I think about that and I know that I’m going to react, so there is a big strength that came from my parents and I always keep it. So there are moments in which I feel down — and I have my moments — but then I know that those moments are not going to prevail.

DD Who are the best leaders you’ve ever worked with on the football pitch or in management?

GZ On the football pitch, probably as a player I think one of the best players was Franco Baresi (former AC Milan player) — he was a fantastic leader. Another very good leader was Maradona in a different way. Maradona was a fantastic leader in terms of talent. He made you feel safe all the time because you knew that you could play the ball into his feet and then he sorted it out. It was another way to lead by example. Franco Baresi was different. He never shouted, he was always calm but very, very determined. He was not a big talker but he was always very present. Another big leader was Didier Deschamps (now manager of France and formerly with Juventus and Chelsea). You knew he was somebody with a lot of experience and authority. Whenever he spoke he always said the right things.


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