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What leaders can learn from Guus Hiddink’s failures

 June 10, 2015 – by Rutger Peters and Georgy Evers


It is safe to say that the qualifications of the Dutch national football team for the European Championship of 2016 are quite a struggle. At the time of writing, direct qualification for the tournament in France seems to be hanging by a thread. The situation reminds Hiddink of 1995: “Back then I had a similar case with the football team as I have now”*. Although Hiddink did manage to qualify that year, the EC of ‘96 went down in the annals of Dutch football history as a big mess-up. After the pool match against Swiss, a dormant clash among the players erupted within the team. The incident sparked some painful lessons learned for Hiddink: “The Ajax-players were too dominant (…). It got completely out of hand”**.  After Edgar Davids (at the time 23) offended Hiddink it represented the last straw. Davids was sacked from the team and left the EC in England that same day. The dynamics that led to the demise of the Dutch in ‘96 can occur similarly within Management Teams. In fact, the powers at play can be predicted and – given the right leadership – overcome.

Soccer 1996

Photo: Guus Dubbelman, 1996

Painful inequalities
To learn what led up to this moment, we take a short trip down memory lane. During the EC of ’96 the Dutch team was primarily comprised of Ajax players, who had won the Champions League just a year earlier. Ten out of the 22 Dutch players were proudly able to boast this success and – as a group – they had a significant impact on the team. The history they carried with them had made tensions rise within the Dutch team since significant inequalities existed among players at Ajax. Experienced players, such as Danny Blind, earned over six times more than the club’s top scorer Patrick Kluivert. Furthermore, the power balance within Ajax was completely off: Ronald and Frank de Boer and Danny Blind decided together with the leadership of Ajax about the wages of the other players. Guus Hiddink was also more prone to consider the demands of these remuneration class ‘A’ players: older, white Ajax footballers with a lot of experience. This, at the expense of the new talents: (without exception) young, black remuneration class ‘B’ players.

“Hiddink must get his head out of players’ asses so he can see better”
The inequality between both groups signified a special friendship among the young black Ajax players. They referred to their strong ties as ‘the cable’. When results failed to materialize during the EC, their distance to the rest of the group made tensions rise to the brink of ignition. When Davids expressed his anger to Hiddink after the unjustified substitution of other ‘cable’ player Clarence Seedorf, he found himself immediately sacked from the team. Later he shared his outrage with a Swiss journalist: “Hiddink must get his head out of players’ asses so he can see better”. The negative consequences of subgroups – such as the ‘A’ and ‘B’ players in the Dutch team – can have a disastrous impact when team members are aware of their underlying factors. In the case of the Dutch in ’96 these were clear as ice considering the significant differences in age, ethnicity, remuneration and influence. As a consequence, the Dutch team suffered from a lack of security, trust and communication, which has inevitably influenced the meager results.

The corporate jungle
For every team different factors are at play and often these are more complex than the strikingly visible differences in the Dutch team of ´96. For management teams, these differences generally remain manageable within daily business. When the strategic direction is evident and managers still have a clear role and responsibility. During organisational change however, managers are often faced with insecurities that could bear considerable consequences. Especially when leadership has a clear judgment of other managers’ qualities in light of the upcoming change. The outcome is that organisational change oftentimes results in quarrels within management teams, as it makes managers become more aware of the deeper lying differences that exist within the team.

Boardroom instincts
Decision making during organisational changes is seldom purely rational. Leaders tend to ‘guesstimate’ and are influenced by a wide range of facts and opinions. Managers frequently hold different perspectives on the future and the way towards it. When significant gains – or losses – can or have to be made, less tangible factors appear to play a role in the team, such as: perceptions, beliefs, assumptions, expectations, motives, standards and values. These are strongly individual, determined through age, personality, education, and work- and life experiences. When facing insecurities, managers sometimes draw towards each other on the basis of such similarities. These ties can give them a sense of security but undermine the connection with the rest of the team. When a barrier exists between ‘A’ and ‘B’ players in a Management Team, it can harm the success of the change. Something that could signify a demotion in current days’ Champions League of fierce global competition.

The case for connection
During organisational change, the dynamics within teams can become tense. For successfully negotiating these challenges, a solid base of trust is crucial. Successful leaders know how to ensure connection within the team, so team members will identify with the greater good. Diversity is hugely important for teams, when team members learn from each other it makes the team greater than the sum of its parts. This can only ensue when leaders know how to build bridges between the various authentic individuals that often make up Management Teams. To that extend the current situation within the Dutch national football team is worrisome. Whether or not Hiddink knows to enable a sense of security and trust in the team is strongly questionable, since only the stars of the World Championship of 2014 can count on playing. On the brighter side: Hiddink does offer some perspective. At the WC of ’98 he finally managed to create a sense of unity team, resulting in a fourth place with virtually the same team that saw the EC ’96 collapse.

*)   Source:
**) Source:


Georgy EversGeorgy Evers (Het Zuiderlicht Managementadviseurs)
Rutger wrote his graduation thesis on management team dynamics during disruptive organisational change with Het Zuiderlicht Managementadviseurs. Georgy has supported and guided Rutger during his thesis research among several client firms. On the 15th of June 2015 Georgy will introduce his book ‘De reorganisatie ontmaskerd’ (‘the reorganisation exposed’) about leadership during significant change processes. The book is stacked with revelations, cases and sharp analyses, based on over 40 in-depth interviews with business leaders.











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