As someone who has supported Leeds United for over over 53 years, through the good times and the bad times, it was with great sadness that I learned of the departure of Marcelo Bielsa.
As a coach/manager he is unique. His impact on the my club, my city and on football was so profound. It was magical, at times unbelievable and endearing, So much so that the entire city took him into their hearts and hung on his every word, every gesture and every action.
As leader, he was incredible, he transformed a group of 3rd rate players into winners who would confound those of us, who had seen them fumble for success previously.
Here are 5 things i learned from his as a leader.
If you study who long it takes to change culture, most experts will tell you it takes time. You might start to see the first changes in 3 months, but normally you would need at least 6 month.
Marcelo Bielsa changed Leeds culture in just 6 weeks. After taking over a dull team, who finished in 15th place playing dour football, he transformed them into a high energy, all attacking powerhouse. I remember watching the first game in charge versus Stoke, with the commentator stunned to see the same players from last year playing such amazing football. We won the game three nil against a team that were supposed to beat us easily. Marcelo changed the culture so quickly by letting everyone know why it would be beneficial to the team, to the players individually and why it would be great for the fans too. He made it easy for people to buy into his vision, as everyone benefited. When you can create that kind of dynamic change happens very quickly. When everyone benefits there is no resistance.
All experts, including myself talk about the importance of communication, and here we usually mean verbal communication. Here’s the thing Marcel Bielsa changed the culture within just six weeks, and yet didn’t speak English when he joined Leeds. Most of his interviews were via a translator such was the poor quality of language skills.
However, much of our communication, 70-93%, depending on which expert you listen to is non verbal. Marcel communicated his commitment, his belief, his passion through his actions, through his intensity and through his work ethic. Sure his strategies need to be communicated in English, but given what we have seen this is clearly a much smaller part of the success than we might think. We often hear its more about walking the walk, than talking the talk, and Marcelo was a living testament to that theory.
In one game that stood our he demonstrated his integrity, when he thought that we had scored a goal unfairly. He immediately insisted that we let the opposition score without any resistance. They just walked the ball down the field and scored to get what felt was justice. No words would ever communicate his integrity more than that single act.
When Marcelo Bielsa arrived at Leeds many of the squad were deemed surplus to requirement and it looked like we would need an infusion of better talent. But Marcelo didn’t ask for new players, he said that he would make the current team better. He saw in many skills and capabilities even they didn’t know they had. One player in particular, Kalvin Phillips, he told him he would change his position and if he followed the instructions he would be an England International within 2 years. No one believe that, not even Kalvin Phillips, yet 2 years later he was called into the England squad and the following year he was Englands player of the year during our run to the European Championship Final. During our first season back in the premier league, when we finished 9th, the majority of the players were those who had languished near the bottom of the championship previously.
If you have the right plan, the right preparation, and you create belief it is possible to transform any teams performance. Great teams are based on great strategy, applications and belief, not just great players and it’s a leaders job to bring those ingredients.
It’s true that results are important, but the transformational impact that you can have on individuals, on teams, and on communities is just as important. Pep Guardiola said that for him Bielsa is the greatest coach because no one improves players better than he does. When he was asked about the importance of winning trophies that that was just as much down to the quality of the squad as it was the coach, and that how you improved pleasers was a more important measure.
Also, are the improvements we made sustainable, and will they live on beyond our tenure, what will our legacy be. Will it be limited to what was achieved whilst we were there or will it last long after we have gone, as that is the true measure of a transformational leader.
Under Bielsa I saw this taken to an absolute new level of accountability. When asked about every setback, or when prompted about any player who might not have come up to the mark Bielsa always took the blame. If the team played badly it would be because of his tactics and the way he had set the team up. If asked about a player he would say it was his fault because he had chosen the player and given him the instructions. When things went well it was because of the team when things went badly it was because of him. When the team was injury ravaged, and other teams were calling off games because of covid he would still send out a team, and if they got beat say we had the resources to win, but he hadn’t found the right formula. When giving assessments of performances there were never any excuses, just clear assessments of where we could have done better, or an acceptance that the other team deserved the win. There was no blaming of referees, or other players for their tactics. Bielsa shouldered all blame and protected his players.
As you might have guessed I am a fan of Bielsa and sad to see him leave, but the mark that he has left on Leeds United the club, the players who played under him, and the City of Leeds will live on long after his departure. How do I know this? because even today his first club Newells Old Boys, remember him with love and affection, so much that many of them followed his exploits at Leeds.
True leaders are a rare breed, they are an inspiration and we should learn to cherish them for their impacts can be immense.