Football and the Meaning(lessness) of Management Concepts

By Esben Rahbek Gjerdrum Pedersen

Romanticized management concepts often seem to fall short in capturing actual management practices in today’s corporate world. Experiences from other types of organisations may help deepen the understanding of the concepts and the phenomena they are trying to portray.

Romanticized concepts

The management literature is full of concepts, which indicate passion, engagement and community. Internally, terms like corporate culture, values, karma, spirituality, passion and even love and religion express a deep symbiosis between the individual and the organization. Externally, corporate communication is soaked in references to sustainability, citizenship, social responsibility, and community engagement.

If we are to believe the “About Us” sections, corporations today are more about benevolence than business.

There is a problem though.

What happens if you compare the rosy picture of business with harsh business realities? One illustrative example is the talk about management commitment. How does it go along with the fact that the average tenure of CEOs is steadily decreasing? And how do you combine talks about commitment with the recurrent discussions about bonus schemes? It seems like an awful waste of money to approve exorbitant compensation packages to CEOs if they were driven solely by an inner sense of duty and dedication to the job.

What all these management concepts have in common is that they try to give business personality, heart, spirit, and soul.

However, if we are interested in concepts like commitment, passion, and loyalty, today’s corporate world is perhaps not always the right place to look. Probably more than ever before, these concepts seem more meaningful in private life and collectives rooted in the local community.

Like community football…

As part of a survey among Danish football clubs (supported by a UEFA research grant), I asked club representatives a simple, open question: – What is the main reason to be engaged in the club? A few quotations are found at the bottom of the text and well illustrate some of the differences between the corporate world and community sport.  A few examples:

  • Stickiness. Commitment means being in it for the long haul. It is not unusual that volunteers are members of football clubs for 20, 30, and 40 years. When managers drift from one company to another, it serves as proof that they are committed to their career. Not the organisation.
  • Obligation. The quotations from the survey indicate that commitment to community sport is often linked to an obligation to support the local community and paying back for own experiences as active players.
  • Community. In community sport, commitment has roots. You are committed to something: – the sport, the people, the club, and the community. It is probably no coincidence that local club names usually refer to a city or a region, whereas the corporate names are mostly faceless abstractions referring neither to activity nor geography.

The real motives

The point is not that club volunteers are all saints dedicated to the greater good of society. Most volunteers probably start off with instrumental motives when they become engaged in club life; either because they play themselves and/or have children in the club. However, for some volunteers club life gradually becomes part of one’s identity and network.

The question remains, however, why the management literature seems so eager to wrap business in romantic rhetoric about commitment, loyalty, authenticity etc. when these concepts often seem to reflect what has been lost rather than what can be found in today’s corporate world. Of course, part of the management vocabulary can be passed off as organizational bullshit, but even the disregard of truth may reveal some truths about our society.

Maybe the abundance of romantic management concepts reflects a dream about relationships in a market characterized by transactions.

A seek for passion in a highly professionalized work life. Longing for a community when people have all become individuals. Whatever the reason, a researcher should restrict the use of concepts to organisations where they have not yet become emptied of meaning.

Like community football…

Table 1: Respondents about the main reasons for being active members of the football club (Translation from Danish)
”Make a difference in my local community and support my interest in grassroot football. Jeg am a club person and believe voluntary work should be a ”citizen duty” (…)”
”After a whole life as active in the club, also as trainer and board member, it was natural to continue (…) and give something back. I think it is fun to work with kids and people, who also give me a lot I can use in the work life”.  
 ”I like the social life in the club and want to help others in getting the same experience”.
”I have played football from when I was a kid and had wonderful experiences that I like to hand over to the youth”
”Because I love football and like to give something back for all the years when I was more on the field than outside. Moreover, it is important that somebody do something in the associations in our community”. 
”Because my kids play in the club and because I think you should make an effort in the associations in the city. And not least because I like to be part of making a difference in the local associations.
– ”Have been an active football player all my youth, where I met engaged trainers and leaders. So it is probably to give something back”
”Help our city in having a place where children, young and elderly can play football under good conditions”
”Funny, I have asked myself the same question:-) I have been an active player from when I was 8-9 years old, to league player, to old boys – so it is simply paid back time for all the experiences (…) to all the people who made it possible.” 
”Always been involved in football. Somebody helped me when I was playing myself. Think that you have to give something back.”
”Payback to the club which has given me a lot of good experiences. My contribution to Danish associations – the voluntary brigade!”
– ”Lifestyle after more than 30 years of voluntary work. Help young athletes to get a good future. This has been my goal throughout the years and has given me a lot of good experiences”

”Voluntary work helps in creating a well-functioning local community. For children, it is important to promote active living. And it is also developing you personally. Unity and identity”
– ”For many years, I had children in the club and therefore I am involved in the work. I have enjoyed playing football and would like to give others the same experience. ”
”As a child, I experienced a lot of good things. Now when I have the opportunities, I feel obliged to give something back.” ”Have always been a volunteer in community sport and for more than 50 years. Nice to see things grow and do something good for a lot of people. Not least the social element of the club.  And you get to know a lot of people and build some friendships for life”. 
”Have been involved in football for 45 years. Good friends and good network. Be part of making a difference on a voluntary basis”.
– ”For 20 years, I have played football in the same club. To have a good club I also have to take responsibility”
– ”The community and the joy of working with other people who love football”.”Football has always meant a lot to me and I think you have an obligation to contribute to the continuation of football. Every community needs a football club. Everyone should have an opportunity to do team sport which can also be a great foundation for your future life.”

Learn more about our research on football and CSR here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/16184742.2018.1546754


About the Author

Esben Rahbek Gjerdrum Pedersen is Professor at the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at Copenhagen Business School. He researches CSR, Corporate Sustainability, Non-financial Performance Measurement, Supply Chain Management and Process Management.

By the same author: The Business (and Politics) of Business Cases

Photo by Click and Boo on Unsplash

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