Didier Deschamps is sitting opposite me in a hotel bar in Monaco and is explaining the art of leadership. “I don’t think you just become a leader,” he says, leaning forward in a low armchair and sipping an espresso. “You can’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Right, now I’m going to be a leader.’ I think it is something that’s in you, that you’re born with, and which develops. Some people have that character, that personality and it comes naturally. You can’t force it. It has to be authentic and natural. Innate. It comes from you, your early years, your attitude as an adolescent, how you are with a group and as the one who influences things.”
In the past Deschamps has credited Aimé Jacquet (France’s World Cup-winning coach) and Marcello Lippi as great influences. He spoke of Jacquet’s man-management skills and Lippi’s tactical smarts. But when I ask what he has taken from different coaches, he snaps. ‘I didn’t take anything!’ His fist slaps into his palm to make his point. ‘Everything you go through has to fit in with the way you are and your own ideas. You wouldn’t be able to do today what coaches did when I was a player. I say something to my son and he tells me I’m prehistoric. You have to live in your time, be of today.’
Didier Deschamps: the water carrier who holds France in his trusted hands
This is one of the key lessons that Deschamps is keen to impart. Leaders may be born but adaptability can be developed. And for managers today it could be the most important of all. Just because one plan worked at a certain time with a certain group is no guarantee that the same plan will work again elsewhere.
“The key thing is knowing how to adapt,” he says. “Adapting to the group that you have at your disposal; adapting to the place where you’re working; adapting to the local environment. This is crucial: adaptability. It means being aware of the strengths and weaknesses inside the group; being aware of all the outside factors that can influence your sphere; and adapting to all of that, then modifying what you’ve done and not being afraid to change.”
Deschamps is talking on a personal level but the same is true of today’s modern, behemoth companies. PayPal began as a cryptography company, Google used to sell its own search technology to other search engines and Facebook started out as a campus-only social network. Apple was not the first to create a smartphone, a tablet computer or a digital music player: they just did it better than others. They all adapted to capture new value in the market. Deschamps’s job is to do the same.
During his 15 years as a coach – at Monaco, Marseille, Juventus and with France – Deschamps has had to adapt. Some players in the France squad were not even born when he lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy at the Stade de France in 1998. He openly admits that managing millennials today is a challenge and not just in the sporting context.
“The role of the leader is much more complex today,” he says. “In society at large mentalities have changed. In any professional sphere an 18-year-old wants everything and they want it straightaway because they feel strong. They have mastered new technology which gives them a certain power over generations above them. And these days an 18-year-old has no qualms about wanting to take the place of someone who’s 30 or 40, who has experience. These days there are no borders; kids feel strong and confident. They have a desire to explore and to conquer. These can be good things but there can be a bad side as well.”
This often involves an entourage whose motivations may not always tally with the player’s best interests, or a social network that provides the player with a link to fans and additional commercial revenue. These are outside influences that never concerned Deschamps as a player. “They see players as a cash cow and that cow has to keep giving milk.” Deschamps gives an example of the player who has been dropped and whose agent tells him, “The coach is an idiot” and demands a move straightaway. He has seen it happen.
“One of the words I hear a lot is injustice,” he continues. “But what is considered injustice for them may not be something you agree with. So it all becomes a question of how you interpret words and where you put your cursor on the importance of words. For a lot of young guys these days, very quickly they will say that’s totally unfair.”
This may be familiar to those who work with millennials in a non-sporting environment. They are accused of being entitled, narcissistic and unfocused, attitudes that confound their managers. Social networks have created a generation who crave instant recognition. Technology empowers them to challenge authority.
If you’re telling the group to stay calm and you have beads of sweat dripping down your forehead, you’re in trouble
Simon Sinek, a British-American author and motivational speaker, urges leaders today to understand how social media also affects behaviours. Engagement with social media releases dopamine, the same chemical triggered by smoking, drinking or gambling. Dopamine is addictive and social media gives people access to that hit. As this generation switch their craving for approval from parents to their peers, so they rely on social networks: for likes, retweets and shares.
“As they grow older we’re seeing that many kids can’t form deep-meaning relationships,” Sinek told Inside Quest . “Many friendships are superficial; they can’t rely on them; their friends may cancel on them. They don’t have the right coping mechanisms for stress, so when it comes in their lives they turn to a device and not to a person.”
That means a different type of management is now required. It’s one that involves an exchange of views, an understanding of opinions and a mutual trust. As Deschamps tells me how he builds that trust I am surprised by the rigour with which he approaches his role.
He thinks about every word he utters, and is acutely aware of his body language and how he delivers his message. “It’s not just about the words you use, but the way you use them, and the message that puts over. Also your face too and the way you project your message. If you’re telling the group to stay calm, be good, and you have beads of sweat dripping down your forehead, you’re in trouble …”
Deschamps takes in as much as he can. He has created a circle of trust that both empowers the group and provides him with more information to make better decisions. This is how he gains an edge.
Every new player called up to the France squad has a one-on-one chat with Deschamps. He tells them what he thinks of them, what he wants from them and warns them what to expect in the future. Once that player is an international, the way people look at him will change forever as will expectations from his support structure, team-mates, opponents and the media.
Deschamps ensures that all players have a copy of his Code of Conduct in their rooms at Clairefontaine, the French training centre. In it he asks them to respect the jersey and the national anthem, to display an open and friendly attitude, to be genuine and humble and, in a section on how to handle the press, to remember that “your behaviour, attitude and words shape your image as it is replayed to the public by the media, which are an unavoidable and indispensable part of your journey. They mould the image that you show to the entire country, so be professional with them, too.”
You can get a gist of his message from how Deschamps defines talent. He thinks all young players have potential, not talent. “Talent doesn’t exist in young players. Talent is something that you are able to show at a high level over a period of time. We’re talking about consistency, that’s talent. Talent has to be confirmed. It’s the confirmation of potential. It’s getting to the top and maintaining that level over a period of time.”
The player needs to understand his message. “What I don’t want them to think is that if they have to come to Clairefontaine they have made it. This is only the first step.”
Deschamps then keeps an eye on how they settle in with the squad, not just on the pitch but off it. ‘It’s very interesting for me to watch that.’ Deschamps will give a youngster a wider margin for error, but he will not accept a lack of effort, a lack of determination or a lack of desire.
“If it happens they get a warning and I see how they react. It comes down to a relationship based on trust,” he says. “The role I have as national team coach is about having a moral contract. I don’t pay these guys, their club does, which is why I’m talking about a moral engagement. It’s about creating a link based on trust. The human relationships these days have become almost as important as what’s on the pitch.
“Being a manager is about recognising talent and knowing how to use it in the right context. You need to spot that thing which tells you, ‘He’s the guy who can bring me what I need here’. Your choices are human investments; you have to put time in, to get to know them better. They have different lives, personalities, cultures, backgrounds, even views on life. So you have to be able to tune in to their station. Man-management has become extremely important.”
This is where the dialogue comes in; not always face-to-face in his office, but sometimes the odd word on the training ground or during a meal. It’s all considered and thoughtful. The information on his players is out there, available to us all. “What interests me is knowing the man behind all that.”
This is an edited extract from Edge: What Business Can Learn from Football by Ben Lyttleton, HarperCollins, which is out now and can be bought here