It was not talent alone that made David Beckham the most famous and admired soccer player in the world, with a personal brand worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Doing things with a football that most of us can only dream of was clearly an important part of the brand of the English soccer star, who announced his retirement on May 18th. They even made a movie about someone who wanted to “Bend It Like Beckham”. But assuming we have found something we are good at, what can we learn from Beckham’s ability to turn good into great?
1. Never see yourself as bigger than your team. Some exceptionally talented people make it all about them. Beckham always gave lots of credit to his team mates. He did not use his talents to show off, but to create goalscoring opportunities for his team mates that made them look good. His delight in sharing the glory around enabled him to play well with other talented players, which helps explain how he won championships in England, Spain, France and America. His team ethos helped him turn around players at LA Galaxy, who initially resented his huge salary. The phrase you hear used most about him, unusually for a sporting megastar, is “totally professional”.
2. Know your limitations. Beckham has been widely praised as a spokesman not just for soccer but for sport more generally, for instance helping Britain win the right to host the 2012 Olympics. Yet in his early career his speaking voice was ridiculed, and even now he rarely says anything profound. He seems to have learnt not to over-extend himself when speaking. Beckham was never one for clever soundbites. He kept it simple, remained constantly good humoured, and let his feet do most of the talking on the pitch.
3. Pick good advisors. Beckham had a talented team around him, helping him build and protect his brand, negotiate lucrative contracts and so on. The fact that you hardly read anything about Team Beckham and their work for him tells you all you need to know – and Beckham was smart enough to choose them.
4. Never make the same mistake twice. Nobody is perfect; the important thing is to learn from your mistakes. Beckham made at least three mistakes that could have done him serious damage, yet each time he learned his lesson, and emerged stronger from the crisis.
First, he was widely blamed for England’s elimination from the 1998 World Cup after he was dismissed for needlessly kicking an Argentine opponent. He won back the fans by playing better than ever, and never again letting his country down.
Then he was forced to leave Manchester United, his beloved first team, after falling out with its legendary manager, Alex Ferguson (who has also just retired). Beckham made a public show of dissent, drawing attention to a head injury suffered when he was hit by a boot kicked by Ferguson (an accident, it was claimed). After that, Beckham had to go, apparently to his regret. Never again did he publicly make any criticism of his team coach.
He also learnt lessons in his personal life. After tabloid reports of an alleged affair, he could have suffered similar reputational damage to Tiger Woods (see this article I wrote for The Economist at the height of the Tiger crisis). But Beckham seems to have worked at his marriage with his popstar wife, Victoria, and his status as a role model for involved, metrosexual modern fatherhood is stronger than ever.
5. Always treat other people well. Seems obvious, but unlike many sports stars, or indeed other important people, you never hear of Beckham being anything other than polite and courteous in his dealings with other people, from big shots to regular Joes. He is universally regarded as Mr Nice Guy. Giving back was part of Brand Beckham long before he decided to give his entire salary from Paris St Germain, his final team, to charity.
He will be missed on the soccer field, but for these reasons he is likely to remain a powerful role model and brand for many more years.
What do you think?