For a growing number of sporting stars, their media platforms are now managed by PR and marketing experts. It’s a way to enhance their brand based on content and the frequency or timing with which it’s posted. For many, they’ll be taught about the responsibility of their actions on their media platforms in their media training and the far reaching impacts their comments have, they want to avoid coming across too opinionated or passionate for fear of scandal. In a lot of ways they are taught to censor their personalities. What few have considered or, better said, risked, is that their far reaching platforms have the ability to lead change on a scale few have the ability to do. Their every letter is under the microscope meaning they’re only ever one typo away from scandal but also one opinion away from galvanising a community.
However, with that being said, let's jump into their shoes for a second and think about the risk-reward ratio. It can go one of two ways, big impact or big scandal and nothing really in-between. So would you take the risk?
For Marcus Rashford it was well worth the risk. Suddenly a shy young man, known only for his footballing abilities, was thrown into the public spotlight. Not for the injury-time winner he scored at the weekend but simply for an opinion he gave about the government’s responsibility to help the country’s poorest children through a once-in-a-generation pandemic. 500 million tweets are posted per day, and without knowing the exact statistic, I hasten to estimate that the majority of those are opinions. That his gathered such momentum shows the true power of social media in today’s world. That’s all it takes, a figurehead in the world of sport shares an opinion that suddenly goes viral and with a few clicks of the keyboard he has become a child welfare campaigner who holds the government to account.
What adversity has he faced?
So where did Marcus Rashford’s story begin?
Rashford grew up in one of Manchester’s poorest council estates in Wythenshawe. With a football always glued to his side, he was born the youngest of five children to a single mother, Melanie Rashford. To understand Rashford’s sense of perspective and purpose is to understand what his mother gave up during his youth. She worked three jobs and still that was often not enough. He tells the story of how his mother would often come home from work to cook dinner for him and his siblings, not eating herself to make sure there was enough for her children. If the question why ever came up, she would simply say she had eaten at work; something Rashford only later learned not to be true. He didn’t know the full extent of her struggles because she would always sit there with a smile on her face as though it was normal. It is this that he credits to the mental strength that drives him forward on a daily basis. Seeing someone suffer to that extent every single day, but get up the next morning and give her best go at it all over again, gives a young man a sense of perspective no sponsorship deal later on in life can displace.
But it’s his “Why not?” mentality that he credits as his mother’s greatest gift to him. He would never have made it as a Premier League footballer if he hadn’t continuously asked himself the question why not? And, why not him? While the majority of the adults in his life told him not to bother dreaming, that what he was after was impossible, his mother kept telling him anything was possible. And over the years this became his mantra, whenever someone said something was impossible or couldn’t be done, he always thought in the back of his mind the two words “why not?”. So when the government claimed it wasn’t possible to issue free school meals to the poorest families in the UK over the summer school holidays, Rashford couldn’t help but ask himself the question: why not?
What makes Marcus Rashford such a good leader?
If we define the character of a leader by the way in which they respond to adversity, then we need to look no further than Marcus Rashford. To come from such a difficult beginning in life to succeed in such a highly competitive industry at one of the biggest and most competitive sporting clubs in the world is not a feat to be underestimated. And he didn’t just ‘make it’, the way he burst onto the scene will go down in history as one of very few players to truly make an instant impact. On his debut in February 2016, Rashford scored two goals against Danish side Midtjylland and just three days later he scored two and assisted the other in a 3-2 victory over Premier League rivals Arsenal.
So what makes Marcus Rashford so unique? An accusation often thrown at rags to riches athletes is that they forget their roots, they forget where they came from and how they might have suffered in the past. They have a platform, they have wealth but they keep it to themselves. It is the way in which he delicately navigates this that is arguably the most effective part of his campaign. He’s not talking about himself or his story, he’s just trying to provide a platform for other people’s story to be heard. He speaks only of his story to explain why he cares. And it’s this mature, self-deprecating approach that puts the emphasis on community rather than himself. He talks in ‘we’s’, ‘our’s’ and ‘us’’, he’s bringing people together rather than dividing people or pitting people against each other.
How is he using this as a springboard for continued success in the future?
What is amazing is that Rashford seems to have almost inadvertently stumbled upon his real purpose beyond his footballing abilities. He talks about how no system is perfect and how it can always be improved. And that has now become his mission; improving it step by step by step. Next he’s turning his attention towards the estimated 383,000 children in the UK that have never owned a book. Again, growing up, he knows how much of a hardship this was and he wants to learn from his experience to give those in a similar position an opportunity so many of his peers never had.
What this shows is that leaders can often come from the unlikeliest of sources. If you would have asked Marcus Rashford himself 2 years ago that this is what the future had in store for him, he probably would have called you mad. Even now, after all he has achieved, there are those who say he should focus on his football, especially given his current downturn form. Then on the flip side, there have been comments on social media suggesting he should go into politics, even become Prime Minister. But for him it’s simple: “I’m doing what I think is right to help people who need it. I just want to keep the ball moving and go in the right direction”. And I’d like to think the world would be a better place if more people took the same attitude.