Why Does Lionel Messi Want to Leave Barcelona? Because Superstars Should Be Treated Fairly, Not Equally

Most businesses have “that” employee: smart, energetic, self-motivated, embracing formal and informal leadership roles, while consistently outperforming other employees in every objective measure.

In short, most businesses have at least one employee they can’t afford to lose.

With all due respect for Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona forward Lionel Messi has arguably been the best soccer player in the world for more than a decade. He’s won six Ballon d’Or awards. (Think “best player in Europe,” which basically means in the world.) He’s won 10 La Liga (Spanish Premier division) titles and four Champions League titles. He holds La Liga records for most goals, most goals in a season, most hat tricks (three-goal games), and most assists.

In short, in many ways Messi is La Liga, especially to people outside of Spain.

And, since he’s spent nearly 20 years at the club, he is definitely Barcelona.

Last week, Messi faxed the club saying he wanted to leave the club. In response, Barcelona said, “The club have responded to the fax to say that they expect Messi to continue and to finish his career at Barca.”

Messi wants to go. Apparently, he’s been unhappy for some time, with recent events pushing him over the edge. Newly appointed head coach Ronald Koeman has reportedly already told several veteran players, including Messi’s best friend, Luis Suarez, that their services are no longer appreciated.

And then there’s this: Multiple reports say Koeman told Messi, “Your privileges in the squad are over. You have to do everything for the team. I’m going to be inflexible. You have to think about the team.”

Barcelona wants him to stay — and can probably make him stay.

While Messi’s contract doesn’t expire until June 2021, a clause was added that would allow him to unilaterally terminate his deal at the end of the 2020 season, as long as he informed the club by June 10. But since Barcelona’s season was prolonged by Covid-19, Messi clearly feels the extension to the season granted him until the end of August to exercise the termination clause. (After all, had Messi’s contract expired at the end of the 2020 season, Barcelona would certainly have expected the terms of the contract to remain in force until the season actually ended, not when it was supposed to end.)

Should Barcelona let him go? On the one hand, Messi is a considerable commercial asset: jersey sales, ticket sales, global attention and awareness. (Shoot, I went to Spain last fall in part just to see him play.)

Then again, Messi is one of the highest-paid athletes in the world, and Barcelona may decide letting him go — and receiving a hefty transfer fee in the process — would help balance their coronavirus-affected books. 

I would probably let him go. He’s helped make Barcelona the richest club in the world. The club could take the high road, allow him to leave, and use the proceeds to get on with the process of rebuilding an aging and, at least by Barca standards, underperforming squad.

But what I wouldn’t do is draw a line in the sand over “privileges.”

Face it: Superstars get more leeway. Superstars get to break rules lesser performing employees must follow. Superstars get to say and do things that others don’t. While that might not sound fair, that is the way it works: in sports and in business.

Your best salesperson can get away with a few things others can’t. You let your best software engineer come in a little late if he wants; you see it as a reasonable tradeoff for outstanding performance. You look away when your best salesperson is sometimes hard to reach; you see it as a reasonable tradeoff for generating significant revenue.

You put up with a few things from high performers that you would never tolerate from mediocre employees. (As a boss once told me when I complained that another employee was allowed to make personal calls and I was not, “When you hit the numbers he’s hitting, you can make an occasional phone call too.”)

Maybe Koeman doesn’t think Messi’s performance deserves perks or privileges other players do not get. Maybe that’s why he’s taking an “inflexible” position.

If that’s the case, that’s certainly his decision to make, and could mean that Messi’s performance is no longer seen to match his wages. (And is another reason Barcelona should consider letting Messi leave.)

But if Koeman is just trying to make a point, he’s making the wrong point. 

There’s a huge difference between “equal” and “fair.” Every employee should be treated fairly. But every employee is different. Some need a nudge. Others need regular confidence boosts. Others need an occasional kick in the pants.

Some employees have earned greater freedom. Others have not.

Equal treatment is not always fair treatment. Your employees care a lot more when they know a reward or discipline is based on what is right, not just what is written.

And is based on what is earned, through performance and effort, and results.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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