Leadership Lessons from the World Cup’s Trash-Collecting Fans

A fan clears trash from the stands during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
A fan clears trash from the stands during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Photo: Getty Images.

Here are three leadership lessons we can’t let go to waste from World Cup fans.

While most of the action during this year’s World Cup is taking place on the pitch, my favorite moments are happening long after the final whistle has blown. These are not scenes of miraculous goals and deft defensive maneuvers. They are actions taking place in the stands and in the locker rooms, with little–if any–fanfare around them.

I’m writing, of course, about the scenes that so many of us have found compelling in our social media feeds: Team Japan leaving its locker room perfectly neat and tidy, and Japanese fans cleaning up all of the trash around them in the stands–both their own and those created by other teams’ fans.

Now, of course, we should be cognizant to not draw a misrepresentative picture of entire countries and cultures based on the actions of a relatively small number of people. But we can absolutely see in these small but powerful instances, that kindness is contagious.

As Tomomi Kishikawa, a Tokyo-based flight attendant told the New York Times, “We believe we can make this contagious. We don’t need to push anyone to clean. But if we start, maybe we can be a good example of respect.”

While the story of these fans from Japan has been well-covered, it has been magical to watch as so many other fans from other countries have joined this movement as well. As fans from Morocco, Saudi Arabia and many other countries have begun to follow suit and clean up after their matches as well, there are three lessons that leaders can take from these simple acts of everyday kindness.

Leadership comes in all forms.

Though most media stories on the World Cup focus on leaders who possess formal authority – the head of FIFA, the managers of national squads, or team captains – remember that one does not need a title to be a leader. I believe that while leaders might be scarce, leadership is abundant. These fans staying late to clean up do not have any formal leadership title. But they seize leadership moments when they choose to step up and take action for those around them. They are practicing a concept I unveiled in my new book, Becoming a Changemaker, called “Microleadership.” Instead of waiting for permission from others to lead, they are, instead, stepping up and seizing small moments to be leaders themselves. No one told them to bring garbage bags to the matches, and no one has been telling them to clean up. Instead, they are recognizing an opportunity to take action and make a difference for those around them, and they do so consistently. In these small actions, they are showing the power of microleadership.

Think about who comes next.

I believe that executives should not be judged solely by what they accomplish during their time formally leading a company, but also to what extent they set their successors up for success. One of the guiding principles among fans cleaning up is consistent: Leave the stadium cleaner than they found it when they arrived. Imagine bringing that same perspective to your own work ensuring that you are not just solving problems as they appear, but also making sure that those who come after you don’t have to solve those exact same challenges as well. It’s taking a long-term, generational view, and understanding that your actions today have ripple effects–both good and bad–for those who will come after you. Whether that successor is the person in a meeting room after you, your replacement when you take a new job, or the next generation of people, good leaders make sure that they leave their companies, community and world better than they found it.

Let values be the guide.

From reading and watching countless interviews with fans cleaning up, I’ve noticed one common theme across nearly all responses: they each talk about how their actions are an embodiment of their values. Throughout the day as leaders, we face countless instances where it would be easier, simpler, and seemingly less burdensome to cave a bit on our values. To fudge a bit on, say, our value of humility when we take credit for something that wasn’t really our work or to turn a blind eye to our value of inclusivity when a star performer makes an insensitive comment. Values serve as our guiding light and leaders should always think about alignment between their actions and their values. No one would blame fans for leaving the stadium early without cleaning up. But when we look at it through a values-lens, it becomes clear that staying to clean-up better embodies these values compared with skipping out at the final whistle. As management scholar Clayton Christensen wrote in his book How Will You Measure Your Life, “It’s easier to hold your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time.”

The next time you see these photos of spotless locker rooms and trash-free bleachers in your social media feed, remember the leadership lessons that you can take from these inspiring examples. Recognize that leadership does not require a formal title, to always think about how your actions will impact those who come after you and to lead with your values front and center.

Here’s to each of us catching this wave of kindness, and passing it along to others.