The World Cup Leadership Story You Might Have Missed

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and Vladimir Putin

While most media attention was on winners, losers, the players and their coaches, one brilliant example of leadership from the world cup slipped under the radar of many people. This was the story of Croatia’s president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. What really caught my attention was that although the spotlight fell onto her largely in the closing moments of the competition (because of Croatia’s role in the final) actually her behaviour from the very start of the competition was a masterclass of emotionally literate modern leadership behaviours.

In the text below the words in CAPITALS are my key observations of the powerful leadership traits. These are Visibility, Humility, Trust, Authenticity, Genuine, Appreciation and Gratitude. There more I wrote, the more leadership links I could find and write about but I didn’t want to bore you so there are the top observations, you can find many others for sure.

Let’s see what we can learn!

She attended every match except one (which clashed with a NATO summit)

A leader’s support must be visible and felt. Why? Because as a leader you have a disproportionate impact on those around you, many leaders do not realise the esteem their opinions are granted by others. When a leader is so visible in their support and encouragement this makes a huge impact on the team, the leader’s belief in that team carries real weight, and that matters….a lot! Note: Her role was never to tell the team how to play but rather to show she was behind them in their efforts.

When she attended the NATO summit she handed out customised Croatian shirts to various world leaders. You cannot get much more public than that! She is so visibly proud of her team and her nation (the key here is VISIBILITY).

She flew economy and wanted to sit in the stands like everyone else

She wanted to stress her desire to demonstrate that she is a football fan like everyone else. “I wanted to showcase that I am a football fan, like everyone else; I wanted to support the team among other fans in the stands. I put on a shirt with national symbols, whereas the dress code in the VIP zone, which usually presupposes long gowns, wouldn’t have permitted such an outfit,” the Russian website Sportbox quoted her as saying.

In today’s world the feelings of inequality and mistrust are growing every deeper and wider. The damage is profound and there is an ever-increasing divide of “them and us”, the antidote to this is the ability to ground our ego so leaders are able to demonstrate HUMILITY.

I know through the lens of spin and social media it’s easy to see some of these things as engineered and insincere but I have a humanistic approach to these things, when I look at the photos and videos online I don’t see a machinations of a PR mastermind. Whatever the reason, seeing your leader as ‘a real person’ doing normal things joyfully and with the same excitement as everyone else promotes TRUST. The more ‘separate’ a leader keep themselves the less the team will connect and trust them. Leaders must always be the master of their ego and stay grounded with humility.

She let her personality shine through and was not embarrassed about her feelings

She did watch some matches from the VIP areas but she clearly stands apart from the other people in those areas, not just in her appearance as the only world leader wearing their team’s strip but also in her facial expressions. She screamed, cheered, cried and made a human connection at every opportunity.

It’s not just the bright red and white of the country shirt that makes her stand out, it is her naturalness. This AUTHENTICITY is in short supply in the world of international politics. When someone drops their masks and shows a GENUINE open hearted personality it really does stand apart from the crowd.

Leaders can learn a lot from this. Too many leaders try to mask their feelings or try to blend in with the corporate norms regardless of their natural personality in order to climb the professional ladder. We are seeing fewer suits in business these days but I do not believe we have truly embraced individuality!

She connected with people at every opportunity

We saw how she flew economy and stayed in the stands as much as possible but in addition to the humility of these acts was the behaviour that accompanied those moments. She took every chance to be with people in the moments of success, celebration and failure.

After the matches she was often in the locker room with the team looking them in the eye, sharing their emotions and ensuring she had a personal connection to the team. Once again I understand the optics of social media so by all means draw your own conclusions but to me everything about this seems not only genuine but deeply valued by those on the receiving end. We can surely learn a lot from her behaviours?

Win or lose she showed the same level of support, APPRECIATION and GRATITUDE

Whether it be a celebrations in the locker room or the emotional loss in the final she showed how much she appreciated the efforts of the team. When the players were sweaty, probably smelly and exhausted in the changing room she hugged them regardless, when they lost she stood in the rain and did exactly the same. My guess is that this team never felt like a failure when they were in her presence.

Now imagine how powerful our teams could be if they knew they had the support and appreciation of their boss regardless of how successful the outcome. Over many years in business I consistently see teams hiding truths from their boss or adjusting presentations to paint a better picture and avoid recriminations. I often see team discussing how to present things to ensure the boss is kept happy or perhaps how they can get the attention of the boss to show their achievements.

In fact, the president went a step further in every match when she demonstrated appreciation of the other teams! She consistently and publicly thanked the other teams and praised them also. Never was this more obvious than in the final as she hugged all player from both sides.

On social media one person said “Best scene at the World Cup. Pouring Rain, no umbrella and Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic hugs every single player from Croatia and France, even if Croatia has just lost. That’s pure emotional and so warmly. No politics, only sport! Congrats to both teams!”

In her own words during one interview she said: “It doesn’t really matter if we win the gold or the silver. We’re on top of the world. And I’m so proud of my nation” – Reported in RT ahead of the World Cup final.

So there it is, a brilliant example of many of the characteristics of emotionally intelligent leadership seen in a current world leader – who would have thought it possible?! We could all learn a lot from these behaviours to help us in our leadership and I’m quite sure other politicians could do with taking some notes from this woman.

Summary: What she did…

1) She attended every match

2) She flew economy and wanted to sit in the stands like everyone else

3) She let her personality shine through and was not embarrassed about her feelings

4) She connected with people at every opportunity

5) Win or lose she showed the same level of support, appreciation and gratitude