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The best player is often a worthless captain

[Guest post by Lodewijk van der Peet - Leadership Coach]

In 2004, there were several scouts in the stands of the Amsterdam Arena, all watching Raphael van der Vaart, one of the most creative players of the highly successful Ajax football team. The team’s technical director, Arie van Eijden, was excited and nervous. His trainer, Ronald Koeman, insisted on keeping “Raffie,” his star player. So after consultation, Arie decided to raise the price considerably. Ronald was instructed to make Raphael captain and to always keep him in the starting team. In confidence, he told a journalist from De Telegraaf, the country’s most widely read newspaper, that the Ajax planned to offer Raphael a new contract. Don't tell anyone!

It was international news within hours.

Bad atmosphere

Raphael’s teammates rebelled against him. The guy might play great football, they said, but he shouldn't tell anyone what to do. Who does he think he is? The bad atmosphere affected the team’s performance to such an extent that Raphael lost his position as a top transfer. He opted for the huge salary at Hamburg SV, a mediocre team where he was the top player. Then to Real Madrid. Not a success. Actually, Raphael has never had the success predicted for him.

Even a top player needs a coach

Quite a few managing partners have gained their positions by being the best players on their team. Because of their exceptional intelligence they usually manage to make it work (unless they’re too vain). They listen to their predecessor and probably know a CEO of some other large company to whom they turn to for advice over drinks. But at the Champions League level, no one can make it with intelligence and commitment alone. Like the very best football players in the world, a managing partner needs a good coach.

Serving players

Sometimes managing partners are appointed who are not the best players. They have to ensure that the best players can continue to excel and are not bothered with trivial corporate matters, like automation or HRM. Those are the serving players. The disadvantage of this position is that they have little authority within the group and less mandate to represent it.

Get to work

Mistakes are inevitable in both cases. The managing partner is paid well and continues pushing on, trying to figure out how make it work. They are offered no support. Don’t complain. Keep working.


In the legal world, it’s seen as a weakness to admit you don't know something. It’s even a loss of face to admit that some things make you nervous. But addressing a group of employees is quite different from convincing a judge. Dismissing an employee is quite different from reaching a settlement agreement. Motivating, exciting, persuading, orating, and looking someone in the eye while delivering bad news is new territory for a new managing partner.


I spoke with several managing partners who from their first day on the job started their one-way trip to a serious burnout. They had completely underestimated the job and hadn't counted on being given so little time, credit and goodwill. They spoke of being mercilessly and frequently criticized by their colleagues, who were once their peers, but soon saw them as targets. A burnout is the ultimate loss of face in the world of elite lawyers. And a unnecessary waste of talent.


It’s high time for law firms to provide sufficient guidance during the onboarding process. Give the new managing partner a dedicated coach. A mentor. Give her a few months to learn the required skills—skills that no one is born with. A coach doesn’t even need to know anything about the legal profession. Perhaps it’s best if they don’t, actually. The coach must have knowledge of people and communication. Because a managing partner must suddenly deal with a completely new set of challenges and processes, entirely distinct from those pertaining to law for which she was trained. And the fees charged by a good coach are miniscule compared to the enormous risks they will reduce.

Reappraisal of experience

Is it a bridge too far for your firm to hire a professional coach? If so, I have another suggestion: ask a for help and tips from people on the floor. They will admire you for being vulnerable at the start of your new mission. You might be surprised how helpful they will be.

This article is written by Lodewijk van der Peet - certified leadership coach


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