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What visionaries see: Vincent saw the corn, Einstein the number, Zeppelin the Zeppelin, and Johan saw the ball.

April 4, 2016

My grandfather was a Dutchman, and that’s where I get my height – 1.84cm, 6ft 3 inches – the average height of a man from the Netherlands. The fact that I frequently speak Double Dutch is simple an act of clumsiness, not heritage.

The death last week of Hendrik Johannes Cruijff, known to us as Johan Cruyff, rekindled memories of watching the 1974 World Cup with my Grandma from the Dutch side of the family, especially the moment of The Cruyff turn. Cruyff, who died at the age of 68, was one of football’s greatest and most significant figures. The proof lies in two phrases with which he will always be synonymous.

One is Total Football – the style epitomised by the Netherlands team, with Cruyff as the centrepiece, who reached the 1974 World Cup final before losing to West Germany. It was a philosophy based on the theory that any outfield player could play in any position on the pitch with comfort. Cruyff was the embodiment of that supremely skilled, multi-purpose footballer.

At that same World Cup, he performed a piece of skill that remains his calling card forever – The Cruyff turn – when he bamboozled Sweden defender Jan Olsson with a touch of football ballet, allowed him to drag the ball behind his standing leg with the inside of his foot. It combined instinct, quick thinking, athleticism and natural ability. That was Johan Cruyff.

He has left an indelible mark on the game that will live on in the stylistic approach he brought to Barcelona and is maintained to this day his protégé Pep Guardiola. As a player with Ajax, Barcelona and the Netherlands in the 1960s and ’70s, he brought to the game a true breath of genius. As a coach too, he shone gloriously, offering innovation, inspiration and a steady supply of silverware from teams emboldened in his image.

Cruyff in full-flow was a sight to behold. An inch under 6ft, lean but whippily resilient enough to soak up the most brutal physical tackling, he was blessed with exquisite balance and a destructive variation of pace. One second he could appear to dawdle aimlessly, the next he had exploded, probably going for goal.

His most vivid attribute though, was his regal command of the football, as exemplified by the dazzling manoeuvre to which he gave his name. All in the twinkling of an eye, he would dummy to pass or shoot, then drag the ball behind his planted foot with the inside of his other boot before swivelling through 180 degrees and sprinting away, leaving his hapless victim trying to work out what had happened.

To all that dexterity, Cruyff added acute vision and positional intelligence. I always think of being in charge of the speed and direction of the ball. When I don’t have control of the ball what do I do? I press to get it back. It’s a way of defending. But more important is that I like to have the ball. That was Cruyff in 1979, giving birth to the high-pressure pressing game he developed at Barcelona, continued by Guardiola.

It’s like everything in football – and life. You need to look, you need to think, you need to move, you need to find space, you need to help others. It’s very simple in the end he said in 1990, and today we have ‘tiki-taka’, characterised by short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels and maintaining possession.

Tiki-taka moves away from the traditional thinking of formations in football to retaining the ball and shaped the Barcelona style maintained today through Messi, and the passing ‘carousel’ characterised in recent years by Andres Iniesta and Xavi.

Cruyff was obsessed with football from early boyhood and joined Ajax as a youth player after his mother, a cleaner at the club, had sung his praises and persuaded the club to take her 12-year-old son into their youth system.

Cruyff made his senior entrance for Ajax in 1964, and Britons became widely aware of the Dutchman the following season in which the 19-year-old Cruyff touched sublime heights in the 7-3 aggregate evisceration of Liverpool in the European Cup. It was the halcyon early ’70s days, however, that the man called Pythagoras in boots by the British sportswriter David Miller, established his everlasting reputation.

Following a transfer to Barcelona, his international zenith was as Player of the 1974 World Cup, performing and scoring in lordly mode on the way to the final against West Germany. Come the big day he began brilliantly, embarking on a penetrating run and earning a penalty – before the Germans had even touched the ball. Although the Dutch dominated, West Germany bounced back to win 2-1.

Cruyff laid aside his boots in 1984 to take his forceful personality into the coaching arena, retracing the steps of his playing days to serve first Ajax and then Barcelona. He proved to be as innovative off the field as he had been on it, focusing passionately on skills and techniques, introducing fresh routines and specialising in one-on-one work to eradicate individual weaknesses.

As Barcelona coach in 1988 to 1996 he laid the foundations for what we have seen in the last decade of Barcelona’s dominance of European club football. The words of Guardiola, today’s most celebrated football coach, can be used to outline Cruyff’s influence at the Nou Camp: Throughout my career I’ve simply tried to instill what I learned from Johan Cruyff. Johan Cruyff built the cathedral. Our job is to maintain and renovate it.

La Masia, an old Catalan farmhouse built in 1702 was first used by Barcelona to house its youth academy under a Cruyff initiative introduced in 1979. In 2009, Barcelona won the Champions League with eight home-grown players from Las Masia. In 2010, Spain became World Champions with eight players from Barcelona, seven were from La Masia.

Cruyff and his first Ajax and Netherlands coach, his mentor Rinus Michels, together re-imagined the game as a highly skilled, swirling spatial contest, whoever managed and controlled limited space on the field would win. Over time his ideas became the new orthodoxy of elegant, thoughtful creative football. It was Cruyff who made it that way. Cruyff was a visionary leader who could put his ideas into practice on and off the pitch.

Plenty has been written about visionary leadership over the years, but Cruyff’s passing got me thinking: what is it that makes a visionary visionary? There are relatively few people that are universally regarded as visionaries, my list would include Edison, Einstein, the Wright Brothers, and latterly Steve Jobs.

While universally acclaimed, they are often regarded as super-talented genius, outliers that live outside of the range of normal human experience, so what are the traits of a visionary?

They are big-picture oriented & imaginative You can recognise visionaries by their ability to see the big picture in an imaginative way. They envisage a big, bold new future, and imagine future possibilities in their minds and then explain what they have imagined clearly. They imagine concepts in their mind’s eye that others cannot imagine. Through their imagination they can draw future possibilities.

They have strong convictions Once a visionary has an articulated vision, they must have strong conviction if the vision stands a chance at becoming a reality.  Certain visions are extraordinarily difficult to carry out and thus require an extraordinary strong belief in the vision and the visionary’s ability to carry it out. Conviction moves new ideas forward.

Visionaries have a sense of meaning & purpose They are clear about where they are going and what they will have to do to get there. Their behaviour is purposeful and directed. A trait is the willingness to take calculated risks and hold a certain amount of discontent with the status quo confronting naysayers constantly doubting the vision and the visionary.

Visionary leaders have the quality of persistence Following on from their conviction, meaning and purpose, one specific challenge unique to visionary leaders is best expressed by the warning label on a driver’s mirror – objects in mirror are further away than they appear.  Because of the vividness of their visions, visionaries often underestimate the difficulty in bringing the vision into reality or the distance between the present and envisioned outcome, as the vision seems so close and obtainable to them).

Visionaries must possess the quality or attribute of persistence. Unabashed persistence allows them to push through all difficulties. In the end, the difference between a successful and unsuccessful visionary often comes down to drive and persistence.

Visionary leaders make good predictions – they are not dreamers Visionaries build an accurate conceptual model of the future based on their understanding of the present, and then bring that model into reality, creating the future. A visionary’s key ability is not their prophetic sight, but rather the gift to predict accurately from the present into the future and combine with executive ability to carry out the vision – visionaries literally creates the future.  While there is some difference between predicting and influencing the future, possessing the former skill is helpful and the first step to developing the later skill.

They are focused and present, positive energisers Visionaries are exemplars in terms of focus and attention to the moment, to make it happen. They have positive attitudes and positive energy, belief that they can achieve something new and spectacular. This mindset and behaviour enthuses and influences others around them as to the possibilities that they have envisaged. Due to this positive attitude and energising personalities, visionaries are surrounded by positive people who are willing to help them achieve a common vision.

Visionary leaders are highly sensitive A frequent characteristic of visionary leaders is that they are usually sensitive, or taking a different angle, can be awkward, prickly and temperamental.

Cruyff was argumentative, arrogant, dominating and brilliant. He prized creativity over negativity, beauty, originality and attack over boring defending. There were problems along the way. With his belief in the ‘conflict model’ – the idea that you got the best out of people by provoking fights and thereby raising levels of excitement and adrenaline – Cruyff made enemies almost as easily as he generated delight. Battles with club presidents and team-mates led to ruptures.

Like Cruyff, Steve Jobs had a burgeoning personality that at times over spilled, primarily due to frustration. This sensitivity can manifest itself as quirkiness or even in certain cases as mental illness – think for example about Van Gogh or John Nash.

Nevertheless, no other football figure can match Cruyff’s combined achievements in his two principal careers – thrilling, mesmerising presence and performances on the field, then inspiring and hugely influential coach off it. Vision creates vitality, focuses energy and defines purpose.

Cruyff used his brain, as well as his famously agile feet. His rules of the game were simple. If he had the ball, the space on the pitch had to be made as large as possible. If he didn’t have it, the space had to become threatening and small. He adjusted his perspective continually with the movement of the ball.

Toon Hermans, his fellow-countryman, eloquently described his almost spiritual enthronement in Dutch hearts:

And Vincent saw the corn
And Einstein the number
And Zeppelin the Zeppelin
And Johan saw the ball.

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