Why Sepp Blatter has my sympathy

Published: Jun 11 , 2015
Author: Stephen White

A woman tries to board an overcrowded bus at the bus depot. The passengers bar her way. She protests. ‘I must be allowed to get on this bus’ she says. ‘Why’, the other passengers reply. ‘What makes you so important that you should take priority over others who are already on the bus?’ ‘Because I’m the driver’ she says.

Two weeks ago we saw Sepp Blatter exercising his rights as the ‘driver’ to stay on the bus, even though more and more of his fellow passengers were uncomfortable with his insistence to do so. Eventually the pressure got to him, and now the whole FIFA edifice is collapsing before our eyes. As I write the latest news is that the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup has been suspended because of increasing speculation that the 2018 and 2022 processes were flawed. Blatter believes that he can stay on as the bus driver until the end of the year – I can’t see him being there for more than a few more days or weeks if further scandals emerge.

Blatter has considered himself to be the indispensable central element of FIFA for all of his 17 years as President, and probably for some time before that. As the news of alleged bribery and corruption started to emerge 5+ years ago he should have realized that increasingly he was not able to manage the news about FIFA because he WAS the news. That was the time to make way for someone new, untainted by allegations, who could grasp the problems and try to resolve them. But instead he couldn’t envisage life, either for himself or for FIFA, without him at the center, so he overstayed his welcome and the now the wheels are coming off the bus big time.

Nine months ago we were invited to pitch for a major piece of global business. I steered our way through the mechanical part of the RFP process, becoming more and more deeply involved in the detail of what the client’s real needs were and how our offer could best match those needs. I became the oracle of knowledge – there was no question that I couldn’t answer, either from the client or from a colleague. I lived and breathed this project – getting the deal became a personal goal!

We won our way through to the short-shortlist, and the client asked for a face-to-face pitch meeting. Reluctantly I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t the right person to do it, in terms of my knowledge of the client industry, matching age profile, culture and so on. So I stood down and briefed a team who were selected specifically to complement the client’s profile to make the pitch. I’ll tell you – it hurt for me not to be there. But I recognized that I had to get off the bus and that we needed a new driver if we were going to get to our destination.

Although there are still I’s to dot and T’s to cross it looks like we made it, and the team who have managed the pitch have done a great job – congratulations to them.  But I could have so easily persuaded myself that I should stay and lead the pitch – it was a close call. The fact was that I was far from being indispensable; I did recognize it in time but it was nevertheless a painful decision, and one which would have been so easy for me to convince myself not to make.

Many senior negotiators make the same mistake as Sepp Blatter. Needing to ‘see it through until the job is completed’ is a noble ambition, but foolhardy if staying on magnifies the chance of ultimate failure. Examples are where there is a personality clash with the counterparty (the battle of the alpha males), or a revealed conflict of interest (close connection with a competitor). So negotiators must regularly sense check the balance between their personal capabilities and the needs of the organization to come to a successful conclusion. Leading from the front is not the only way to lead. Sometimes they need to take themselves out of the spotlight for the good of the organization. 

If Sepp Blatter is guilty of involvement in the allegations made about FIFA, whether through omission or commission, he deserves everything he gets. But that he found it so difficult to see when was the right time to quit is also why he has my sympathy.

Stephen White 


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