This subject is a little off the subject of most of this blog, but I often wish to write about my experiences as a soccer referee. This short piece explains some the of things I have learned on the soccer pitch.
The book I most want to write would be titled along the lines of “How Refereeing Soccer Made Me a Better Leader”.
Unlike star players or coaches, the referee is a most unlikely hero, unnoticed and invisible to most spectators until a mistake is made. Yet, like leaders of an enterprise the referee is tasked with setting the tone of the game, using his personality and talent to make guide the players to a spectacle for all to enjoy.
A referee will have about two minutes to make a favorable or negative impression with players and coaches she meets for the first time. Sometimes that impression will help or hinder her in a crucial moment in the game. A good leader must have the charisma to immediately earn the respect and confidence of her associates which will give her words and actions the weight commensurate with the role. Sound judgment when times are difficult builds the trust that she can be counted on to guide when the road is not always clear.
A referee is called upon to make split second decisions based on limited information. In a fraction of a second she must decide which information is important, and which isn’t. Often a quick glance to an assistant who is equally equipped to make these types of decisions will confirm or deny the correct action, applying the teamwork aspect of the referee team. Experience and judgment take time to develop, but when finely honed, any single scenario can be measured against a wide array of inputs and the correct interpretation can be made instantaneously. Likewise most business decisions are often made during the so-called fog of war. Data is desired but when business is forging forward into uncharted territory, an instinct for the successful path is an amalgamation of past experience and vision.
In the professional soccer world, television instant replay may prove the official incorrect in her interpretation of an event, but in the professional business world, course corrections may take place to correct major mistakes. It takes courage to show the humility to make appropriate corrections when warranted and yet deal with past mistakes with poise and action.
The referee is always outnumbered. Twenty-two players on the field, eleven each side with opposing objectives, and a couple of very smart coaches are all looking to exploit every weakness of the opposition, as well as weaknesses of the referee. The gamesmanship begins before taking the field. Players and coaches give insincere compliments hoping to gain favor, or make criticisms in order to intimidate, each looking for that small emotional advantage. During the game, players will try all forms of deception and emotional appeals in order to gain an advantage or official favor. The referee is tasked with understanding human nature enough to correctly interpret when deception is taking place and deal with it using a variety of tools including humor, visible displeasure and official sanction. A strong personality and charisma is the most important tool to maintain composure in the face of the inevitable angry criticism, regardless of whether that criticism is warranted or irrational. Comprehension of everybody’s role in the conflict is crucial to be able to calm situations, strategically utilizing flashes of righteous indignation to show the victims of foul play that such behavior will not be tolerated. Unpopular decisions must be made when the time is right, including those with potential game altering consequences, including the dismissal of players exhibiting criminal behavior. Like sports officials, leaders can’t always lead by committee, they must take the responsibility to make informed decisions, and run with them regardless of popularity. They must navigate the minefield of opposing opinions and interests finding the best path for the entire enterprise.
It has been said that leadership is lonely, and so is the life of a sports official. But like the conductor of an orchestra, a job well done as a referee, produces a spectacle that can be enjoyed by millions. The music conductor or official does not actually produce the product, but enables its production, and when well led, the product is superior than if the performers tried to do it without leadership. The business leader does not design the product, work the line, write the code or sing the songs, but she sets the bar, the tone, and makes sure the performers have the motivation, direction and ability to produce a product or service that will be enjoyed by millions.
I have been a referee for twelve years. For the last seven years I’ve worked adult amateur matches and enjoy the challenge of managing the strong personalities associated with high achievers. With the proper combination of professionalism, humor, consistency and the proper use of authority, I develop report with the participants in a match to keep it civil and productive, with a fair result. The seventeen Laws of the Game in soccer are simple and allow the referee to use his own power of interpretation and experience to make the proper decision at the right time. Often the most powerful skill of an experience official is the ability to read the temperature of the game, using a sense of prediction to understand what may happen next and be prepared for what may or may not happen, so as to never be caught off guard.
Once a player asked me why I was always out there. My answer was that it allowed me to live in the moment for an hour and a half. Refereeing takes such complete concentration that all my worries of the past or future must be obliterated for the moment. A referee will often be mentally computing five different factors while watching for three or more possible outcomes of every situation. The mental challenge of constant decision making combined with physicality of the game defies description. The joys of the soccer official are the joys of personal triumph over weakness, and every game will present a different scenario to be interpreted and decided, just like in today’s fast paced business world.