Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Don't fall on the first hurdle: Sol Campbell

Former England and Arsenal star on how to evolve as a leader and his secret to longevity

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Feb 11, 2023 09:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Feb 10, 2023 07:02:25 PM IST

Don't fall on the first hurdle: Sol Campbell"The continuation of being a great performer allowed my voice to come through, to lead and listen at the right times", says Sol Campbell. Image: Orhan Cicek/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Sol Campbell knows a thing or two about leadership. In 1998, when he was 23, the strapping central defender became the captain of the national team, then the second youngest after Bobby Moore. For years, he survived the rigours of international football with elan, representing England in six consecutive major championships—from the 1996 Euro to the 2006 FIFA World Cup. He also played in the Premier League for 20 years, was a part of the legendary Arsenal Invincibles that remained undefeated in the PL through the 2003-04 season, and later captained Portsmouth to an FA Cup win. An expert on Sports18 and JioCinema's FIFA World Cup coverage panel, Campbell sat down for an exclusive one-on-one with Forbes India. Edited excerpts:

‘Look around you and learn’

I’ve learnt a lot from the people around me, most notably my father, one of my coaches back when I was 14 and Gary Mabbutt, the Tottenham Hotspur captain in the late 80s and early 90s. My father was upright in the difficult time in the 60s and 70s, my coach was responsible for bringing out who I was. And Gary was this lovely fellow who was diabetic and had to do an immense amount of stuff just to be able to play football—he had to take samples before and during halftime, check on the metre and make sure his sugar levels are okay. And he had to do it every day, during training and matches. Gary was a quiet guy, but through this, he showed me the character that you need to be a leader. And also through his ability to stay calm when everyone else was losing their head, because, to be a leader, you have to stay focused through the chaos.  

‘The best leadership style is evolutionary’

I was one of the youngest captains of the English football team and have also led Portsmouth to an FA Cup win. But my leadership style has evolved constantly. Those poised to be leaders start by observing how other people lead and when they come of age, they take a little bit of what they’ve seen, add some personal attributes and put away some. That eventually gives shape to one’s leadership style—no one has everything, to begin with. When I began, I wasn’t an in-your-face leader, but I became a different leader as I grew older. Performance, of course, gave me the confidence that I could do this, the continuation of being a great performer allowed my voice to come through, to lead and listen at the right times. And then experience takes you along, making you learn from mistakes. 

‘Don’t fall on the first hurdle’

Your leadership style might not suit everyone. There might be others who want to take your leadership spot. And you've got to show them who you are. Once, a manager, who had come in, wanted to replace me as the captain, and I put my foot down and said, "No, I am going to stay the captain." That's another aspect of being a leader, where you have to understand the political dynamics, yet stay focused and let all the noise die away. Don't fall on the first hurdle, stay the course, and let others fall off. You just stay focused and get the performances in, because, eventually, the noise dies away.

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‘Love for what you do will keep you going’  

I've played football for nearly two decades and represented England in major tournaments for over a decade. The secret to my longevity? The love of the game. It often happens that people reach the top and then fall off. It's not unusual, it happens to everybody. It's how far you fall off and how you fall off that determines how you get back on. And you can get quickly back on if you love what you are doing. It's at the centre of everything. I would often go back to the time when I was 5-6, playing on the streets of East London, having a competition with my mates and having a laugh, winning games against another area--all that spoke of the love of the game. The second you lose that, you start to fold and the cracks start to form.  

Also read: Why an Indian owner of an elite football club could be a win-win

‘Your best lessons come from embracing newer experiences’  

When you become a high-level athlete, you travel. You come across different people, and races, and if you can absorb like a sponge, your greatest learnings in life can come through those. I am observant and I like to ask questions, and that gives me lessons about new places, and people. Football has taken me to a lot of places, and the experiences that I have taken in have only enriched me. It's one of the most precious positions to be in. 

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