Fifa president Sepp Blatter has refused responsibility for allegations of misconduct under his leadership. But the buck must stop at the top.

For Blatter or worse

Sepp Blatter has officially stepped down as president of Fifa, after one of the most turbulent times in the organisation’s history.

At the height of the recent scandal he reportedly remarked he could not take responsibility for what was happening, as he “cannot monitor everyone all of the time”.

While that statement may technically be true, the question it poses for other leaders is just how much responsibility must you take for what happens within your own organisation? And how much of a role does the culture you forge play in its success or failure?

Blatter on top

Throughout Blatter’s tenure, which started in 1998, there have been numerous scandals and allegations of fraud and corruption – from seemingly flawed decisions to host the World Cup in Russia and Qatar, to the resignation of Fifa’s independent ethics investigator Michael Garcia in protest over the handling of his report.

Blatter has also personally made comments over the years that have raised a few eyebrows – yet somehow, he remained leader of the organisation.

Fifa is of course in a unique position. It is a monopoly that exists in a tax haven that exempts it from various laws; it has control over the most popular game on the planet, yet seems to be accountable to nothing and nobody. 

Despite the unusual makeup of the organisation, Blatter must surely as leader be held responsible and accountable for any wrongdoing? Indeed, could Blatter’s leadership even be a causal factor of the organisation’s problems?

Reflect on your own leadership

“The reality is that as the leader, you’re the parent of your organisation. When something goes wrong don’t blame others; but begin by looking in the mirror”

Martin Palethorpe, The Pragma Group

The current Fifa saga is an opportunity for all leaders to reflect upon their own leadership. Whether you’re a top level chief executive, or a level or two below, to what extent do you take responsibility for what happens within your organisation?

In my experience, many leaders are deluded to some extent. They wear ‘Blatter goggles’ that prevent them from truly seeing what they need to see, or prevent them from seeing their own responsibility in any issues.

I can understand why they might do this – it can be disconcerting to look at what’s not working and take personal responsibility – but being fully responsible for what happens is an important perspective to develop.

You’re the parent

The reality is that as the leader, you’re the parent of your organisation. When something goes wrong don’t blame others; but begin by looking in the mirror. Not only will you find some important answers about yourself, but you’ll also set the tone of responsibility that others will then follow.

“If you’re looking at things with ‘Blatter goggles’, you’ll miss the opportunity to become the best leader you could be and at some point the issues will come back to bite you”

Martin Palethorpe, The Pragma Group

What is it that you did or didn’t do that contributed to the issue? What can you learn and do differently next time? If you’re looking at things with ‘Blatter goggles’, you’ll miss the opportunity to become the best leader you could be, and at some point the issues will come back to bite you… as we believe they have with Sepp.

As leader you’re ultimately responsible for the results and achievements of your organisation, but also its culture, the level of morale, all aspects of your people and their performance and any misdemeanours that occur.

Set the tone

Everything you do and say, both consciously and subconsciously, creates the basis for all of the above. By the pre-defined natural authority of your role, you set the tone that others follow. You may even be surprised by (or unconscious about) the extent that this happens.

So what should you do?

Firstly, consciously define the values by which you want to lead and that you expect of others. In today’s world, this should include: transparency, responsibility, honesty, compassion and service to others. Make sure collusion, delusion, greed, self-interest, dishonesty are not on the list . 

Secondly, responsibility, openness and learning should be at the heart of your approach. Take responsibility for and learn from everything that occurs. Foster an environment of openness. Encourage your people to do the same.

Finally, constantly assess your own leadership and the culture in your organisation.

And why should you give serious thought to all this? Because if you don’t, you may inadvertently score an own goal and follow Blatter out the door. For most leaders, it won’t take 17 years before your accountability is called into question.

  • Martin Palethorpe is a senior executive coach specialising in retail at The Pragma Group

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