World Cup and Croatian Presidential Leadership as a Metaphor for Future Performance of African Nations

Africa lags other regions of the world in almost every sphere of development. In this blog, I write about what I think Africa can learn from the personality and leadership styles of Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović which the world witnessed during the recently-concluded World Cup. Croatia is an East European country of 4.1 million people that emerged as an independent nation on 25 June 1991 from the breakup of the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. The tiny nation surprised the world by beating many strong teams, including Nigeria (2-0), Argentina (3-0), Iceland (2-1), Denmark (3-2), Russia (4-2) and England (2-1), before succumbing to France (4-2) in the Final. The team performed like they were on steroids. Before now, I wasn’t much of a football follower, but I have wondered about what gave the hitherto unknown team the boost to overcome many football Goliaths. A scrutiny of the 2018 World Cup has, doubtless, revealed President Grabar-Kitarović’s leadership qualities and the extent to which her support for the Croatian team acted as the much-needed impetus through which the Croatian football team trounced several high-profile teams as well as the scale that her leadership could inspire the future performance of African countries.  

Her Biography Revisited

The Internet, newspapers and magazines all over the world have been plastered with President Grabar-Kitarović’s spectacular pictures and biography. Here then, I think it is pertinent to dispel one fake information that is circulating about the ebullient and beautiful president. The picture of a flashy lady wearing a bikini on the beach that is being passed around as that of President Grabar-Kitarović is false. That is not President Grabar-Kitarović, but a 36-year-old American super model, Coco Austin, who lives with the famous US musician and actor Ice-T.

Back to President Grabar-Kitarović. As NATO’s assistant secretary in the public diplomacy division, she transformed that division to become the most effective unit of the organisation. She visited Afghanistan several times to raise the morale of NATO troops deployed there. Within the NATO sphere, she is known as SWAMBO, meaning a person that must be obeyed. She is known as a No-Nonsense woman, and one who instills discipline and dedication, leading by her own example. Her ambassadorial position between 2007 and 2011 further validates the female president’s international relations experience. Of course, we all know by now that she became president of Croatia at the age of 46, in the year 2015, and immediately started pursuing her PhD in International Relations at the Zagreb Faculty of Political Science. I think she's still working on it. Before then, she had a bachelors degree in English and Spanish literature and also did post-graduate studies in international relations. She is a Fulbright scholar, who studied at top American universities - George Washington University, Harvard University and John Hopkins University.

President Grabar-Kitarović is also an ex-army commando and a first-rate markswoman as well. From her monthly salary of $5,452 as president, she bought herself the economy class ticket with which she flew with everybody else to Russia to watch her Croatian team. We remember how she put on Croatian Jersey and sat at the VIP box breaching every norm and damning presidential protocols. She mingled with spectators and hugged the players, who were drenched in sweat and sometimes wearing only briefs in the dressing room. We saw her dazzling beauty, but many people forgot that she has been married to her 49-year-old husband, Jakov Kitarović, for 22 years. She is also a mother of two teenage children, 17-year-old daughter, Katarina, and 15-year-old son, Luka. In her home, the president is said to be adept at combining love with discipline.

President Grabar-Kitarović is fluent in most international languages like Spanish, English, Russian and Danish. She also understands and speaks some German, French, and Italian. Her presidential leadership is one which has tilted the Croatian political and socio-culture since 2015 – the time she ascended to power after having served as NATO’s assistant secretary. From a layman’s stance, President Grabar-Kitarović’s exceptional academic credential must have contributed to her unique leadership abilities. However, while President Grabar-Kitarović is highly educated, her leadership abilities are not restricted to her high educational attainments. Arguably, President Grabar-Kitarović has a passion for leading Croatia’s social, political, and economic structures which she blends with both servant and situational leadership techniques (Macmillan, 2016). 

Croatian President's Acts of Leadership During the World Cup 

Instead of relying on a bossy approach to leadership, President Grabar-Kitarović openly interacted with Croatia’s 2018 World Cup players as well as the players from the opposing sides. This way, she technically assured the players that their government was fully behind their World Cup trophy pursuit. While Croatia lost the final game; thereby, allowing France to lift their second World Cup title, President Grabar-Kitarović ecstatically congratulated her players regardless of the medium downpour during the medal ceremony. Reaching out to opposing players might show that she feels confident with herself, is not threatened by diversity and knows how to work with the opposition instead of regarding them as the enemy.

President Grabar-Kitarović’s Leadership Style

President Grabar-Kitarović leadership approach is both situational-based and servant-based. While few presidents attend several World Cup matches in a row, in a foreign country, President Grabar-Kitarović attended several matches when wearing the official Croatian national football team’s jersey. This exemplifies her situational leadership; in which, she acknowledged that the 2018 World Cup environment necessitated her physical presence whenever the Croatia’s team was playing particular games. Through paying visits to Croatia’s soccer team before matches began, President Grabar-Kitarović characterises servant leadership; which, according to Parris and Peachey (2013) and Maxwell (2013), necessitates that a servant leader has to interact one-on-one with subordinates. Back in Croatia, she does not have a soft spot for corrupt aides or members of cabinet since she opines that corruption would impede Croatia’s economy from expanding.

Effects of President Grabar-Kitarović’s Leadership on Croatia’s Exemplary Performance

The Croatian President’s leadership had a psychological angle which tilted the odds in Croatia’s favour. Through attending Croatia’s most crucial matches, President Grabar-Kitarović technically swayed the Croatian team to play with confidence knowing that their down-to-earth president was fully behind them. This psychological dimension was indispensable as apparent in how Croatia was able to overwhelm teams like Argentina which have exceptional world-class football stars like Marcos Rojo and Lionel Messi. Through intermingling with the players, President Grabar-Kitarović technically added a political facet into the minds of the players. In blunt terms, since Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia and was the smallest country in the 2018 World Cup, the Croatian President’s leadership influenced the players to work hard on the pitch to build a reputation for their small country.

Lessons for African Nations

Sethuraman and Suresh (2014) argued that leadership is about humility and learning from successful leaders. African countries could learn from Croatia in three primary ways. Firstly, in the same way that Croatia’s president led the players through attending their significant matches, African leaders could lead the citizens to economic empowerment through playing an active role in developing policies which allow businesses to operate without the corruption-stricken bureaucracies. It will help for the African leaders to personally participate in the economies they manage and partake in the life of common citizens of their countries – including having their children attend the same schools as other citizens’ children, using the same hospitals, pharmacies, markets, mosques and churches that their citizens go to, etc. Secondly, African countries could learn that the process of upgrading Africa’s economic performance requires situational and servant leadership instead of the African leaders’ authoritarian approach to leadership. Antonakis and House (2013) established that bossy leaders rarely enjoy the genuine support of the subordinates. Since President Grabar-Kitarović left her comfort zone to interact openly with Croatia’s youthful players, African leaders should not rely on the mere delegation of duties to improve African’s economic performance. In so far as Croatia’s President could have sent her sports cabinet secretary, she resolved to deal with the situation on the ground herself. Finally, since President Grabar-Kitarović shuns nepotism, African leaders have to institute a culture which relegates favoritism and seeks out and engages the most excellently qualified among their citizens for specific tasks or positions regardless of their tribes, regions, religions, sex, or other labels.


President Grabar-Kitarović’s passion, patriotism, and international relations experience have contributed immensely to her unique leadership qualities. She understands that the most effective leaders are those that inspire their subordinates by showing examples and serving rather than relying on their power to issue orders. While Croatia’s football team had exceptional football stars, President Grabar-Kitarović’s personality acted as the elemental aspect which injected the thrust which enabled Croatia to trounce established football teams like Argentina and England. Croatia’s presidential leadership could offer an insightful meaning of leadership to African countries. Other than the lessons revolving around President Grabar-Kitarović’s indirect influence on Croatia’s stellar World Cup performance, her leadership style could enable African political leaders to strategize on how to eliminate their bossy attitude which sustains corruption and acrimony.


Antonakis, J., & House, R. J. (2013). The full-range leadership theory: The way forward. In Transformational and Charismatic Leadership: The Road Ahead 10th Anniversary Edition (pp. 3-33). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Heath-Brown, N. (2015). Croatia. The Statesman’s Yearbook 2016: The Politics, Cultures and
Economies of the World, 370-374.

Maxwell, J. C. (2013). Be a people person: Effective leadership through effective relationships.
David C Cook.

Palgrave Macmillan. (2016). Croatia. The Statesman’s Yearbook: The Politics, Cultures and
Economies of the World 2017, 373-377.

Parris, D. L., & Peachey, J. W. (2013). A systematic literature review of servant leadership
theory in organizational contexts. Journal of business ethics, 113(3), 377-393.

Sethuraman, K., & Suresh, J. (2014). Effective leadership styles. International Business
Research, 7(9), 165.

Rabia S. Sa'id, PhD
  • Associate Professor of Physics
    Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria
  • Personal Website:
  • Email: rabia at
    Please remember to use the correct format of email, with the @ sign and no spaces. It was written this way to prevent those nasty spambots from harvesting the email address.
  • Ford Foundation International Fellow (2002)
  • Fellow of the African Scientific Institute (2013)
  • OWSD/ Elsevier Foundation Award in Physics (2015)


  1. Great lady. She inspired me too. I think the lesson is for everybody, not just African presidents

  2. Awesome lady. She added colour to the World Cup and is an inspiration every aspiring leader

  3. Excellent analysis and advice. I did not watch the games, but from what I've been reading about President Kitarović of Croatia, she is a great motivator and the best way to lead is to show an example. I wish her country won the trophy

  4. Very aptly done. I wonder why I missed this one


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