Merci, Zidane - Lessons in Culture from the Real Madrid Legend
Weddings are beautiful events. Like the circular rings representing the eternal nature of the bond, the vows join a person to their spouse.
As couples exchange traditional vows, they state, “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
Once that joyous day ends, the couple enters the Honeymoon Phase. The mind races into the future, blissfully painting the image of a future life with your spouse.
As the days go by, the Honeymoon Phase fades and the couple must face day-to-day living. The greater unity, awareness of the spouse’s needs, and continued development of friendship, the greater the odds of a successful marriage.
When marriages go awry, there’s typically an unmet expectation of that future life. Spousal friendship and joy take the back seat to the demands of careers, family culture is left wanting, and that once vibrant image of a future life devolves into the humdrum of day-to-day living. Marriage devolves into a rut, the passive killer.
Creating lasting bonds and vibrant cultures are, sadly, undervalued. There’s a tremendous amount of intellectual, psychological, and spiritual skill that goes into these bonds, but these are difficult qualities to assess.
It’s no different in the world of sport, especially in the highly demanding realm of elite soccer.
The easiest, and most deceptive, factor is a results-based analysis. If the club is winning, or at least meeting expectations, there’s a sense that everything’s going well within the team’s culture. On some level, that’s fair. If the players and coaches are consistently achieving results, there’s likely a positive performance-driven culture at the club.
By this is too shallow an assessment.
Too shallow because it doesn’t begin to examine the foundation underlying the results, the off-pitch commitment to performance, or the social culture within the organization. To be fair, outsiders typically aren’t privy to this information. And that’s fine. Culture, by definition, is the state of being of a particular people. Sporting organizations are no different. Real Madrid is different from Sporting Clube de Portugal, which is different from Manchester United, which is different from the San Jose Earthquakes. Values, achievements, and customs are the underpinnings of culture, each of which is either determined or earned by that specific group.
As the commercial value of sporting organizations continues to skyrocket, there’s a real danger of losing the values and customs that shaped these organizations, delivering them to the heights they now enjoy. There’s a lot of noise and nonsense in the world, skewing our vision of the central tenants at the core of our being.
That’s where we lead into the man who inspired my first book, Zinedine Zidane. Revitalizing Real Madrid wouldn’t exist without him.
When the humanity of sports is sacrificed, organizational culture is pushed aside and it’s the people who suffer. In the case of Zidane, it’s his exceptional human and relational virtues that lay the foundation for his success, both personally and through the performances of the collective. Those “soft skills” create a culture where the members are valued, respected, supported, and trusted to carry out their mission. Through another lens, it’s the intimacy and integrity of community that drives performance, which is precisely why Zizou returned to Real Madrid after eight months away from managing.
In his parting letter to the fans, Zidane wrote, “When, in March 2019, I accepted the offer to return to Real Madrid after a break of eight months it was, of course, because President Florentino Pérez asked me, but also because all of you asked me every day to do so. When I met any of you in the street I felt your support and the desire to see me with the team again. Because I share the values of Real Madrid; this club belongs to its members, its fans and the entire world. I’ve tried to follow these values in everything I have done, and I’ve tried to be an example. Being at Madrid for 20 years is the most beautiful thing that’s happened to me in my life.”
Right away, there’s the attraction of a community, a culture of unity, shared values, and clarity of mission. As the manager, these are qualities Zidane actively fostered, enhancing the identity and participation of the club’s members, especially the players and staff.
But like all relationships, the Honeymoon Period comes to an end. When it does, the strength of the relationship comes to the forefront. Survival is built on the two-way bond developed through daily habits and commitments. Within the world of sports, long-lasting relationships, like that of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, seem a thing of the past. It’s a shame, really.
At a youth level, we’re constantly speaking of development. We train kids to focus on developmental milestones, even if that means results are dropped along the way. Then, once first-team action arrives, the person and program development are forgotten. It’s the harsh reality of professional sports, but certainly not a necessity. When organizational culture is reduced to the immediate, it’s the future life that suffers.
To reach that point, relationships must die. Culture and relationships require a lifetime of development, but just a moment to unravel. When winning at all costs is the only organizational mission, the core principles of culture are devalued, even forgotten.
“I understand football and I know the demands of a club like Real Madrid. I know when you don’t win, you have to leave. But with this a very important thing has been forgotten, everything I built day-to-day has been forgotten, what I brought to my relationships with the players, with the 150 people who work with and around the team. I’m a natural-born winner and I was here to win trophies, but even more important than this are the people, their feelings, life itself and I have the sensation these things have not been taken into account, that there has been a failure to understand that these things also keep the dynamics of a great club going. To some extent I have even been rebuked for it.” – Zinedine Zidane
As core values, respect, and trust disappear, so does the relationship. Regarding the principles of friendship and justice, the Greek philosopher Aristotle says, “friendship and justice concern the same things and are present in the same things; for in every sort of community there seems to be something just, and also friendship” (Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, 1159b lines 26-28).
Transactional relationships are use-oriented, so concerns of friendship and justice are lacking. Those are not bottom-line qualities, which make them superfluous to requirements.
“These days the life of a coach in the dugout at a big club is two seasons, little more. For it to last longer the human relationships are essential, they are more important than money, more important than fame, more important than everything. They need to be nurtured…Luckily I had these amazing lads who were with me to the death. When things turned ugly they saved me with magnificent victories. Because they believed in me and knew I believed in them.” – Zinedine Zidane
The majority of football fans pledge their love and dedication to at least one big club, myself included. We’re as guilty as the elite clubs in this regard. After two or three seasons, we’ll catch ourselves with a lingering glance at the green grass on the other side of the fence.
Green is a universal symbol of hope, which is tied to the life and regeneration of our beautiful world, but it’s also symbolic of envy. Oftentimes, hope and envy are two sides of the same coin. While we engage the world with a hopeful outlook, how often do we simultaneously harbor envy of something beyond our grasp? This is deeply a personal issue with manifestations in other outlets, such as sports.
The outcomes resulting from this MO are often short-sighted and a step backwards, much like the coaching carousel we see in professional sports. When the Honeymoon Phase ends, we’re quick to move onto the next best thing, casting aside the long-held relationship we’ve grossly devalued and failed to develop daily. The result is a restart, both culturally and performance-wise. In some cases, that’s necessary. In far too many instances, it’s the product of broken relationships, lack of patience and understanding, and a lost sense of unity through the mission.
Overcoming transactional relationships, both in sports and in our personal lives, is a direct and fervent commitment to others. It’s present in active listening, empathizing with others while standing firm on core values, and respecting the God-given dignity of each person. These are daily commitments, or habits, that form our character. When we don’t, relationships fade, even to the point of ceasing.
Coming back to soccer, I model my approach to coaching on Zidane, so his departure is a difficult one to bear. I want my players to have the same view of me that Real Madrid players have of Zidane. It takes work. The season hands out obstacles to test our relationships, requiring immediate responses borne directly from our character. There’s little time to find the perfect words to address your players. The response is typically one informed by the minor details in each player’s appearance. Knowing what they need to hear, both to address the present and spur action in the future, is the product of a well-developed relationship.
Zidane had that type of relationship with his players. As I’ve studied his approach to coaching these past five years, all I can say is, thank you, Zizou, for inspiring me to become a better coach, to make that daily commitment to study and developing relationships.
Finally, we have our man of the season, the great Zinedine Zidane, a club legend both on and off the field.
Twice he has rescued Real Madrid from the depths of despair, twice leading them back to the trophy platform.
Though the 2019/20 season marks the first time in his coaching career that he has not claimed the UEFA Champions League trophy, ripping the La Liga crown from Barcelona's head will certainly satiate the crowd.
As if he didn't win enough trophies as a player, Zizou continues to show the world that he is a winner. Season after season, he adds hardware to the halls of the Bernabéu. This season, he contributed both the La Liga title and the Supercopa de España trophy.
After a miserable 2018/19 season, Zidane has returned more than just the trophies. His presence goes beyond the tactics he brought to the team or his cerebral presence in the dugout.
Zinedine Zidane brings an identity.
After the club lost its way in 2018/19, Zidane figured out how to couple the talents and characteristics of his individual players with this revitalized image of the club.
Despite all the injuries, the mid-season slump, a 3-month layoff, and a painful Champions League exit, the enthusiasm, competitiveness, and passion of the players never waned. Even during the season’s low points, the collective mentality brought on by Zizou was apparent to all.
He's more than just a coach. Zinedine Zidane is a standard-bearer.
Twice they've fallen, twice he's helped them back to their feet, returning the club to their lofty pedigree, the only standard he knows.
By restoring the club's identity, Zidane is revitalizing Real Madrid.
*Credit Getty Images for the Cover Photo