Learning from Mikel Arteta: 5 Aspects of Great Leadership
I’ve always loved sports documentaries. Whether it was binging NFL’s ‘Hard Knocks’ in late preseason or getting immersed into Netflix’s ‘Cheer’ — I can’t put my finger on why — but I just can’t get enough of them.
I think it’s about being on a journey with the athletes and feeling like you’re in the zone with them and you have an insight into a whole culture that relies on each other’s commitment to succeed.
Recently having started watching Amazon’s ‘All or Nothing: Arsenal’ docuseries, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what makes a great leader and what we can learn from Mikel Arteta’s example.
As a teacher I’m quite aware of the facets of great leadership according to the literature, but for me these 5 areas are where the skipper really excels:
1) He creates a sense of belonging, identity, and culture.
Take the romantic image of a coach giving a motivational halftime talk to their losing team. Think ‘Any Given Sunday’ for example.
The team are despondent, tired, and the underdogs. The manager uses a passionate anecdote, threaded into a neat extended metaphor, all polished off with nice a string of imperatives. The players run out clapping and cheering and they win the championship game. This is what a great motivational speech looks like right?
I don’t think so, not anymore.
The problem with this kind of speech is it’s all reactive. It’s too little too late. Building a cultural identity is all about creating a sense of belonging and establishing a set of clear values.
As a leader you need to proactively build team spirit from early on in the process. You need to create an environment that people can thrive in and perhaps more importantly, one that they can enjoy. A football club is not too dissimilar from many other institutions in the way that this team spirit comes from the top, someone needs to take the lead and set the tone.
We see this quite clearly in Episode 4 when the manager explains to the team why enjoying the journey with great people around you is more important than the destination. It’s all about the process and if you play with passion, results will follow.
Or in Episode 1, in an emotional speech Mikel describes how he went from the low of his career to a high in the space of a few days all because he gets to work with a group that he loves. This kind of authentic openness is a brilliant example of how to foster group cohesion and as a side note, a great example of tender masculinity.
As I reflect on my own profession of teaching, Arteta’s example really makes clear some of the principles that arise again and again in the literature on creating classroom climate. A specialist in the field, Tom Bennett outlines in his book ‘Running the Room’ the importance of proactively building norms instead of being reactive and the Arsenal coach does just this by creating cultural expectations and punctuating them by rewarding successes and highlighting excellent examples of club values publicly and with passion.
(If you also work in Education, consider also reading “Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools” by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts as this is where I picked up the phrase ‘tender masculinity’)
2) He focuses on individual relationships and helps his players to grow as people.
A heart-warming feature of the show was seeing the close relationships that Arteta created and maintained with his players. Whether it was the one-on-one instruction that he had with Saka for example, or him constantly laughing with players arm over their shoulder, it was clear that relationships are at the core of the plan. Other staff in episode 2 even comment on how the boss has built a unity into the squad and the togetherness has trickled into how the players have positive friendships with each other on and off of the pitch.
I was struck also at the discussion between Mikel Arteta and Emile Smith Rowe and the omission that the player had been loaned out purely to develop in confidence and character away from his mother club and the move had nothing to do with technical ability.
Another beautiful example of tender masculinity and leadership was the decision to monitor the new signing Takehiro Tomiyasu and to create a comfortable environment for him to open up and talk about how he is feeling, the skipper having noticed that he was quite quiet and unlikely to express his doubts or problems freely. He will need a bit more focus and attention.
Sceptical that this is an important one? My challenge to you as the reader here is to think about the best leaders, mentors, and teachers that you have had throughout your life. What stands out to you about them? I would be willing to bet that the vast majority took actions to strengthen your relationship or as a minimum did something for your own development — directly or indirectly.
3) He sets and reinforces high expectations.
Surprisingly, the documentary allows us quite an intimate behind the scenes look at the departure of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang following a string of disciplinary actions.
In interview, Arteta acknowledged: “I’m not going to ask my players to hit the top corner every time… but I will ask them to reach the minimum standard”, referring to being on time to training as an example. By taking such an action with a high profile player such as Aubameyang, the statement is that nobody is above the rules and the club culture is more important than any one player.
It’s also in this fourth episode of the series that we start to see the manager’s all loving people-centric persona heavily contrasted as we see multiple instances of him shouting in the dressing room, making it clear that his minimum standards had not been met.
I don’t know whether shouting is necessary for a leader, but I do think that it’s important to have high standards and for it to be clear that it’s a problem for them not to be met.
I was fascinated to then hear him state quite explicitly to the production crew that there are “values that are non-negotiable and I have to try to instil that in the … club”, listing “respect, commitment, [and] passion” as the three pillars of his envisioned culture, adding that a player “should not be anywhere near this football club” if they don’t have even one of those traits.
This is where the comparison between football manager and a teacher falls short though, because Arteta’s job is very different to mine. He has a room of highly trained, competitive, and resilient professionals to lead to success and if they don’t meet the standard then they will be shown the door. Whereas education should be for all! and not everyone is empowered to the same level. However, somewhat ironically, high expectations emerge across educational research as one of the most important traits of excellent teachers and I think that most people could at least respect that in the Arsenal boss, if not revere it.
(If you’re interested in educational research around this topic in teaching start with the EEF’s website).
4) He maintains positivity and manages egos.
Following demoralising defeats, where the whole team has been outplayed, the coach holds his hands up and takes responsibility. He reiterates the positives that he saw and focusses on characters above technical details in that moment. Mistakes are acknowledged, but shelved until training on Monday morning. He tells the young men that he is proud of them.
I love this as an approach personally because he protects his players: he understands what it is to lose and how bad it feels and he puts his criticisms to the side in order to prioritise the team morale and let the players keep their belief.
5) He displays a persistent drive towards common goals.
I started to feel tired just from watching back-to-back episodes of the series. The impassioned speeches for one are energy intensive. I have no idea how the manager keeps his foot on the gas in the way that he does.
But that exact complacency is what I would need to work on to be a great leader, because it is this relentlessness that reminds the players that in order to win they need to do the exact things that he keeps reminding them of. There is no room for miscommunication and the team’s purpose and identity is signposted at every junction.
I suppose another way of saying it is that he has a clear vision (*sigh*) which, depending on your own experience, you may know a lot about. Vision stands out amongst the research as one of the key features of excellent leadership across professions.
I want to be a bit more original though, so what I think is really commendable about Arteta is not his vision per se, but his relentless persistence in reiterating his vision whether that’s through: how the smaller technical details in training build up to create a winning strategy; developing courageous and passionate characters in the squad; or of course through the more obvious half time team talks that reference the heart and identity of the team.
So your main conclusion might be that I really like sports documentaries and that would be correct. But my hope was to outline that Arsenal’s ‘All or Nothing’ docuseries does a great job of highlighting excellent leadership and we can all learn from it.
Mikel Arteta does a great job of creating a team identity, he focusses on relationships, sets high expectations, stays positive, and is consistently driven towards ambitious goals and I hope to learn from his example.