Blood, grit, sweat, tears and quiet leadership
What I learned about humility, perseverance and subtle influence from a shy man that inspired the world
December 19, 2022, 3AM. Aerolíneas Argentinas flight 1915 is slowly approaching Buenos Aires, after crossing the Atlantic. Even at this hour, there are thousands of people anxiously tracking the flight. This is because it carries something precious that has not touched Argentinian soil in 36 years: the FIFA World Cup trophy. As I watch the giant Airbus taxiing on the runway, and come to a stop in front of a red carpet, I feel giddy. Then the door opens, and a smiling Lionel Messi steps out holding the trophy.
Even though on the surface my writing today is about soccer, it is ultimately about leadership. I’m also an avid story-teller, so I’ll illustrate what I learned via my own story. I’ve had a few months now to reflect on this, after the World Cup. Messi taught me a lot about humility, perseverance and influence, which I think are all good in your career. He taught me leadership comes in many shapes and styles, some, unexpected and subtle. And leadership evolves over time. These are all lessons I apply to my day-to-day work as engineer at Google — and you should too.
The next morning, there was a crowd of 5 million jubilant Argentinians to welcome him and the Albiceleste (the Argentinian national team) as they attempted to make their way to the heart of Buenos Aires. I say attempted because there were so many fans that their open-top bus couldn’t move and the players had to be evacuated by helicopter. The celebration made it to wikipedia’s list of largest gatherings in history, mostly among religious pilgrimages. What could possibly inspire this reaction?
The US has never fully gotten into soccer (or fútbol like I prefer to call it…), but the rest of the world has. Roughly 4 billion human beings watched the World Cup. That’s half of humanity glued to their TV for a glorious, glorious month. Twice as many people watched the final live between Argentina and France as they did the moon landing. Entire countries shut down when their national team plays. It is a big deal and it elicits a passion hard to understand.
[ Quick side note, a funny soccer/software anecdote from my time at Amazon. This was either during the 2006 World Cup or the 2010 World Cup. All of our retail stacks had alarms if traffic dipped below a certain level. Traffic fluctuated throughout the day, but it was assumed that if it dipped too much, too quickly, it was a signal that there was something very wrong somewhere, because we would never not have people buying something on Amazon. One day, some oncall engineer got paged because the traffic on Amazon Germany came to a screeching halt. This poor soul spent some time double-checking everything, and all systems seemed to be operational and reachable from the outside world, but nobody was buying anything. He even placed an order himself, and saw that lonely order go through just fine. He got others involved. Nobody could figure out what was happening. Then, just as suddenly as the traffic had stopped, it resumed. Turns out for about two hours Germans had been watching a decisive World Cup game, and not spending their money on Amazon, to the point that it had triggered alarms half a world away! ]
Back to my story, I was born and raised in Argentina, then moved to the US when I was 15. Argentina is a fútbol-obsessed country in a fútbol-obsessed continent. That Latin passion is deeply embedded in my DNA. I don’t just watch fútbol: I feel it, in every fiber of my being, it controls the way my heart beats. My parents, my entire family, imprinted in me a life-long fervor and national pride for the Albiceleste.
My love affair with the Albiceleste started in 1978, when as a 2-yr old, my dad held me on his lap as we together watched Argentina win the World Cup that year. I don’t remember much, but my mom tells me I giggled uncontrollably as my dad yelled the goals and hugged me tight.
Then, when I was 10 years old, I watched Argentina once again win the World Cup, in Mexico’86. This time I remember it much more clearly. During the game, millions of Argentinians were glued to their TV, and the empty streets looked post-apocalyptic. The city was eerily quiet, and the silence was only broken during each goal, when the screams echoed everywhere. When the game was over, an exuberant multitude poured out of houses and onto the streets. My grandpa packed us all up in his sputtering and venerable Renault 6, covered in Argentinian flags, and drove around maniacally honking his horn and yelling. Everybody was out on the streets waving flags, bouncing, chanting, hugging, crying.
Argentina would continue to have international success for some time. The Albiceleste made it to the World Cup Final again in Italy’90, after beating one of the strongest Brazil squads in history in quarterfinals, and shockingly eliminating the host Italy in front of almost a hundred thousand angry Italians in the semifinal.
To understand this success, you need to know who Diego Maradona was. Diego was a brilliant Argentinian player, considered the best player in the world in the 80s and 90s. Through a combination of crazy individual skills and charismatic leadership, he led the Albiceleste to two consecutive World Cup finals and many continental cup finals.
As a representative of Argentina, and a leader, Diego was the best and the worst of all of us. He was charismatic, brilliant, dazzling, deeply passionate and committed to the team. He could change the outcome of a game in minutes (he single-handedly eliminated England in quarterfinals in 1986 with two legendary goals in four minutes). He oozed self-confidence and inspired everybody around him to push themselves harder than they had ever pushed themselves. The 1986 squad was twenty or so average players, turned extraordinary by Diego’s presence. His leadership was clear, it was obvious and in the open.
Great leaders inspire ordinary people around them to achieve extraordinary things.
But he was also arrogant, crass, mercurial, impulsive, and just downright embarrassing at times. He was the first to get into brawls in and out of the field, had no filter when he spoke (so glad Twitter didn’t exist when he was alive), casually suggested that reporters should perform fellatio on him on live tv on multiple occasions when he didn’t like their questions, had countless kids out of wedlock and did massive amounts of cocaine. We Argentinians were equally proud and embarrassed. But Diego is one of the most beloved national figures, and when he died, the president declared a 3-day country-wide mourning period.
After that golden period in the 80s and early 90s, a long dark period of mediocrity and heartbreak ensued. Argentina was eliminated at the round of 16 in 1994, quarterfinals in 1998, just group stage in 2002, quarterfinals in 2006 and 2010.
Then a young player popped up in the scene: Lionel Messi. He was rumored to be “the next Diego Maradona” so I anxiously tuned in to watch him play and reclaim Argentina’s former glory. He and Diego shared a lot: both had the number 10 jersey, both were diminutive, both left footed, and both brilliant.
But the similarities stopped there.
Messi was shy. Painfully shy. When asked questions by reporters, he answered with a short “Yes” or “No,” seemingly not having very much to say to the world. When he put on the Argentinian jersey, he didn’t seem to play with the same heart and passion for his country that Diego oozed. Sure he had brilliant individual plays, but he didn’t inspire people around him the same way Diego did. As a consequence, even though he was the captain of the team, he didn’t fully command the team’s respect and trust. They clearly weren’t going to die for him on the field. And so Argentina kept losing, even as Messi, touted as the new best player in the world, was in the team. I became disenchanted: Messi was no Maradona.
You may be surprised to hear Argentinians, lots of us actually, didn’t initially love Messi. We wanted him to fill Diego’s shoes, and he did not. I think part of that was that we expected him to show the in-your-face leadership we had become accustomed to with Diego. Messi is just not Argentinian enough, we said with contempt. We want to see him getting into brawls, crying, yelling, oozing testosterone like Diego. Soccer is passion. Show us some of that, man.
As I watched Messi mature from the 2006 World Cup, to the 2010 World Cup, to the 2014 World Cup, I slowly began to see things I had overlooked. I was wrong. He was a leader. He just wasn’t that kind of leader. He was subtle. He was composed. He slowly gained the trust and respect of the players he led, but just not by sheer virtue of being charismatic and outspoken. He was neither, but he led his team to yet another World Cup final in 2014. Sometimes individuals reach a leadership position by just charm, but they lack substance. Messi was the opposite. It opened my eyes to the fact that leadership comes in many shapes, and sometimes, it’s behind the scenes, planting seeds, creating plays, passing the ball to the right person, leading by example. Messi was behind every single goal Argentina scored in the last two decades. When he didn’t score it himself, he orchestrated the play and empowered others to deliver.
And in a world of poorly behaved super-stars like Diego Maradona, or narcissistic arrogant super-stars like Mbappe or CR7, being a quiet, respectful, humble leader is a refreshing trait and a good role model to emulate. When you’re highly visible and in a position of power, others want to emulate your behavior: good or bad.
But he also evolved. He understood he needed to be more assertive. While I don’t think you need to be assertive to be a great leader, you do need to adapt your leadership style to what the people you’re leading need from you. He understood his team needed him to be different. He needed to go beyond his individual brilliance and raise the level of others around him. Inspire others around him to be great too. Messi’s leadership speech before the Brazil vs Argentina Copa America Final is a masterpiece in inspiring with humility.
He started to show more grit and determination.
He powered through a semifinal with a bleeding ankle, rising above pain and giving everything on the field. You’re representing your country, do it proudly.
When Chilean Gary Mendel tried to bully him, he stood up to him, held the stare, and the subsequent primal chest-bump fight went viral. The younger, shier Messi wouldn’t have. How Maradonian of him!
Between 2014 and 2022 he very much evolved to become the leader that his team needed, and the changes in his leadership style were noticeable. When his team needed him the most, he rose up to the challenge, put them on his back and carried the squad. Like Maradona had done in 1986.
Messi also inspired me in terms of resilience. Up until 2021, the great tragedy about Argentinian fútbol in the last two decades is that despite having the best player in the world, and reaching numerous finals, Argentina had not managed to actually win a Cup. Argentina played the World Cup Final in 2014, and lost; played the Copa America finals in 2007, 2014, and 2015, and lost them all. Getting to an international final and losing is heartbreaking. Doing it four times is devastating.
In 2016, after losing his fourth consecutive final, a shaken Messi announced he was retiring from the team, a broken man. Argentinians were stunned. But there was a national outpour of support. “Don’t give up, please!” we implored. He came back, and decided to give it 110% of himself, despite the heartache and constant disappointment. We supported him, also heart-broken and disappointed, but always believing.
Twenty years relentlessly chasing a dream. Almost reaching it, time and time again, watching it slip through your fingers at the last minute. And then, finally, it happened.
The curse had been broken.
In July’21, Argentina (and Messi) won its first continental cup in three decades: Copa America, against Brazil. Then in June’22, Argentina won an intercontinental cup: the Finalissima, against Italy, the European champions. Lastly, in December’22, Argentina won the World Cup.
One last reflection about leadership. Leaders aren’t magic. They can’t single-handedly deliver a lofty goal. They need a supporting cast that can rise up to the occasion.
To that point, another thing that changed between Messi’s early days and today is Scaloni, the Argentinian coach, managed to finally handcraft that supporting squad to deliver Messi’s vision. Argentina has always had a star-studded squad, but whether those egos could work together to deliver results was always up for debate. In the past, big-names like Higuaín disappointed time and time again and never rose up to the occasion. This time, every single player worked together amazingly. And they actually liked each other — you can see the chemistry when they smile at each other, when they hug each other, when they pass the ball back and forth, when they hang out in the locker room. When a team fits together, and everybody understands everybody else, it’s a beautiful thing. This is true in the soccer field, and in your day-to-day job also.