Refereeing is a perfect example of how not to lead

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Referees carry a yellow card and a red card. They do not carry green cards for issuing to players exhibiting admirable behaviour.


  • Lack of affirmations and recognition widens the wedge between leaders and team members make the environment toxic.


  • There is need for more green cards by leaders to mould team members and guide them to achieve excellence.

In the world of football, the maxim rule is either shape up or ship out. This is enforced through deployment of refereeing tools namely the whistle, red and yellow cards and the video assistant referee (VAR). 

From the way referees operate, we pose the following leadership questions: How many whistles are you blowing at the workplace in a day? How many whistles do you carry around? How many yellow cards or red cards are you giving out to your team members per day? How often do you review your VAR or CCTV records?

There are five broad reasons why refereeing is a perfect example of how not to lead. refereeing focuses on finding fault and getting defaulters out. There is hardly any investment in affirmations or positive reinforcement.

Referees carry a yellow card and a red card. They do not carry green cards for issuing to players exhibiting admirable behaviour. Lack of affirmations and recognition widens the wedge between leaders and team members make the environment toxic. There is need for more green cards by leaders to mould team members and guide them to achieve excellence.

Second, heavy investment in physical controls. A working environment full of warning signs, time and attendance systems and CCTV sends negative signals to the customers and visitors about the working environment. It also dehumanises employees.

Third, low team leader – team member affection. Some referees have been attacked by players and spectators due to low affection levels. As a leader, are you safe in the hands of your team? Have you reached a level where you can be attacked by your team members? It is hard to pursue common goals in an environment where leaders are in constant fear of attacks.

Fourth, time keeping. This is a key compliance condition for referees. The match starts on time and ends on time. No minute more, no minute less. Such leadership style is highly transactional. It means that if the shop doors close at 4pm, they have to close whether customers are queuing outside or not. There is no opportunity for discretionary effort and contribution to the success of the organisation. Such leadership will not produce enviable results.

Fifth, low trust level. Referees are suspicious about manipulation or feigning of fouls and injuries by players to earn penalties, free kicks or get an opponent earn a red card or yellow card. On the other hand, players are suspicious of the referee’s impartiality or being compromised. Effective leadership calls for a high trust level. This gets things done quickly, cheaply and harmoniously.

Fred Wasike is the Director Human Resources and Corporate Sustainability at Isuzu EA and IHRM’s HR Director of the year 2021.

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