Ever feel like more of a referee than a leader, spending your time resolving internal conflicts? Sometimes it’s the highest value activity you can engage in. Get better at it by being present in the right place at the right time, managing behavior while supporting people and communicating decisions clearly.

During a gorgeous pre-dawn car ride into Dublin, Brendan Shorte related some of his experiences refereeing international soccer matches. When he explained the three keys were “Positioning, man management and decision-making,” it all crystalized into a powerful leadership lesson.


Brendan’s first step was to “figure out what the 22  players were going to do and position myself to do my job without interfering with them.” This required:

  • Figuring out the teams and players’ biases by observing the first few minutes of that match.
  • Reading the flow of the match to anticipate what was going to happen next.
  • Physical conditioning and commitment to get to the right place at the right time.

Like Gretzky skating to where the puck was going, great referees get to where they can control the action.


Man Management

Managing employees is complicated, especially if your span of control gets beyond about seven people. Imagine “managing” two separate groups of 11 individuals with egos inflated almost as high as their paychecks. And imagine doing this in the most public setting with 40,000 or more people watching every move you make.

This was Brendan’s normal workday, trying to separate out the “lunatics from the skillful footballers” (on the field) to enable safe and fair play with the minimum of interference.

When it came to egregious fouls, the first time players committed one he gave them yellow warning cards as a matter of course. The next step, red cards, meant the players were ejected for the rest of the match. So Brendan used them sparingly.

Instead, when players got close to committing their second “cardable” offense, Brendan warned them – not by calling them over to him and publicly shaming them, but by running alongside them and giving them a private warning: “Do that again and you’re out”. Point made. Ego preserved. Back to the match.


Decision Making

As a referee, Brendan decided penalties, possession, extra playing time and the like. This required:

  • Knowledge of the “laws of the game.
  • Clarity of communication so that everyone understood the decisions quickly and thoroughly and could then get back to the match. (Brendan liked to use both words and gestures at the same time to make his decisions clear.)
  • Confidence to get back to the match himself, not second-guessing decisions even knowing he was going to get some of them wrong.

Strong referees aren’t there. Of course they are there – but no one notices them as they facilitate play. No one is aware of how much they matter. Weak referees interfere and become a memorable part of the story.


Implications for you

This is directly applicable. If you don’t have conflict in your team, you don’t have enough diversity in your team. Managing conflict should be as much a part of your job as it was of Brendan’s.

Yet, as Lao-tzu put it,

The great leader speaks little. He never speaks carelessly. He works without self-interest and leaves no trace. When all is finished, the people say, “We did it ourselves.”

Just as no one likes to win or lose because of the referee, no one likes to win or lose because of the leader. So, do think in terms of positioning, man management and decision making:

  1. Positioning: Anticipate points of conflict and be present at them to keep the conflict positive.
  2. Man Management: It’s not about managing your people. It’s about guiding behaviors while supporting the person.
  3. Decision Making: Some conflict is unresolvable. This is where you step in as the leader and make the call so all can back to the match, right or wrong.