No Matter How Fast You Go, You Can’t Outrun Your Past: Lessons in Leadership from the USA FIFA World Cup Coach Gregg Berhalter

As a brand manager, there’s nothing you’d like more than to have an entire organization full of people who never once made a bad choice or stupid decision. That’s the way to avoid scandals from events that happened ten, twenty, thirty, or even more years ago disrupting your current operation. 

But, people are human. Over the course of their lives, things happen that they wish wouldn’t. This makes these individuals vulnerable: if someone doesn’t like the way they act, the threat of having previous bad behavior exposed can be used against them.

With Friends Like This, Who Needs Enemies?

That’s the situation USA FIFA World Cup Coach Gregg Berhalter faced. One of his players—the child of nearly lifelong family friends—was upset at not receiving as much play time as he thought he deserved. There were public conversations where this player was anonymously mentioned and, in retaliation, the player’s parents contacted US Soccer with information about a fight the coach had with his girlfriend over 30 years ago.

While there are no legal ramifications for Berhalter due to this disclosure—he has been married to the girlfriend in question for a long time now, with a happy family—his role as head coach is now no longer as assured as it once was. US Soccer has enough issues going on without additional bad publicity related to what one of its key employees did a long time ago.

So What Do You Do In This Situation?

Berhalter has chosen to address this issue in a fairly straightforward manner. He acknowledged the incident happened, discussed that the family had to do some work to overcome issues, and was now healthier and stronger than it was then. Then, he consistently tries to turn the conversation to other issues that are more relevant to the US Soccer team. 

Will this be sufficient to secure his position? I honestly cannot tell you. It is, however, a smart strategy if Berhatler’s goal is to rebuild trust with his employer, his team, the fans, and the larger world of sport. A frank, contextualized description of events feeds people’s need to know and eliminates the sense that information is being held back. When the only event that people are disclosing happened thirty years ago, it stands to reason that there’s not much more meat on the bone scandal-wise. The nature of the complaint, in a strange way, provides proof of character. His own admission and statement that he had to work and grow to become a better person is a story many people can believe and relate to. 

What do you think? If you were in the position to guide US Soccer communications, how would you counsel Berhalter to behave? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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