When Luciano Lopez joined the prestigious EHL Group of hospitality academies as a visiting lecturer in Economics in 2018, he was already starting to build a name for himself in academic circles. He was in the final years of his twenties at that time, and working on an illuminating PhD thesis paper on foreign aid. He had lectured in a few universities already by then, but there had always been an air of maturity about him that belied his age, and an edge to him that sets him apart from his fellow academics.

Fast forward to March 2021, and the now Dr. Lopez has moved halfway across the world from his native Switzerland to become Dean of the EHL Campus (Singapore). Now 33, Dr. Lopez is the youngest ever Dean to hold the title in the EHL Group’s 129-year history. We dug deeper into his history to get a sense of his background, and how he developed his unique perspectives and leadership style.

We found that, since he was 18, Dr. Lopez had been a semi-professional referee overseeing international friendly matches that included teams from the Premier League, La Liga, Primeira Liga, Süper Lig and of course the Swiss Super League. So when the opportunity arose, we grabbed the chance to sit down with him and discussed his career, his views on leadership and – what else? – the World Cup.

Augustman: Hey Dr. Lopez! Thank you for taking time to speak to us. Your story is really one-of-a-kind. 

Dr Luciano Lopez: Thank you.

When did you start refereeing? 

I start refereeing when I was 17, going on 18. I started refereeing before I went to university. When I’ve started, of course, I was just refereeing easy games – kids games, for instance. But I rapidly went up to the semi professional leagues.

That’s really young. Was it difficult?

It is when you reach semi professional leagues that you have to be careful with your own personal life. For instance, I could not post social media stuff. I could not go out to nightclubs or bars on weekends, because I had a game during the weekend. The tough life started when I was 20, 21. I always had to decide between my academic career and my refereeing career. As you may know, during your academic career, you may want to go abroad for one semester, one year or even more. In my case, I knew that if I wanted to go abroad, I will have to disrupt my refereeing career progression. Back then, I wanted to do one semester abroad. I had to seek permission to go away for one semester without changing my refereeing qualifications.

Did you?

I did. But then when I came back, I continue to go up the levels (of Swiss football). And at some point, of course, when you reach The Swiss Challenge League (the second tier of the Swiss League and one of only two professional leagues in Switzerland), then you you have to probably work less than 100 percent (as an academic). So this is where I have to decide: was I going to that level? Was I going to keep going up? First, I had many injuries. So I knew that I could go in that direction, but after one year, maybe not be able to referee anymore. And secondly, I really loved my job as a professor when I was in Switzerland. So, I decided to stop refereeing and continue my academic career.

Was it difficult to transition from being a referee to focussing on your academic career? 

It is super tough. Because every weekend, I knew what was my main routine. I knew that I had a game. I had to travel. I knew everything about my weekend. And suddenly one weekend, I was at home. And nothing happened. No games anymore. Nothing. It was a tough decision. Because it’s a huge change in life. I was fit, I had to train a lot and suddenly, there’s no need to train anymore. So if I want, I can stay at home without training at all. And this is a big change. It just comes out of nowhere one day, and then your life is completely different.

Luciano (left-most among the three referees in black) as an assistant referee in a professional game in Portugal involving giants Benfica before his academic career took off.

Which is more challenging: refereeing footballers or running a university?

I think they’re pretty similar footballers want to achieve a goal, within 90 minutes. The students want to achieve a goal within three or four years. At EHL we have a four years program. But the objective is the same is to achieve the goal and their objective. And, of course, when you have such a tough but important goal to achieve, which is to win a game, a semifinal of the Swiss Cup, or to achieve your bachelor’s degree; to succeed? Well, sometimes you behave in ways that are a bit against the philosophy of football, or against the philosophy or the values of EHL. And this is where it becomes sometimes tricky as the Dean to make sure that everyone is on board, including faculty, members, and staff, working towards our objectives. I want to be a leader and not a manager. My role is to say, this is the objective. The way you achieve the objective is your own. If you fall down, get up, it’s okay. That’s how you learn. And if something is going wrong, it’s my role to, both with my body language and with what I say, to make sure that I remind everyone where is the objective. Not to show them the route, not to tell them how to get there.

I think your leadership style, this move away from micromanagement, is very refreshing. And it adds to my next question. You’re much younger than most Deans I’ve spoken to – the youngest in EHL history. Does that come with a lot of judgment?

I have been teaching at the university level for almost 10 years. And since the very beginning, I’ve won prizes because of my teaching, my philosophy, my respect for every human. And I think, if you’re in front of people with really very strong opinions, no matter the age, if you show them respect, if you show them that you care, I think age doesn’t matter. And for me, until now, I have no issue at all based on my age. Not at all. And of course, to be also fully honest with you, it is true that I have a pure academic career. I didn’t go into the hospitality industry but I do believe that, for the hospitality industry, most of the soft skills are skills that you can acquire during your life. And my referee life, my personality, my education were good enough to teach me those skills.

Luciano (left) takes part in a three-legged race at EHL Sports Day.

Tell me about a time when you transferred a soft skill you picked up as a referee to your academic career?

If you are on the pitch and there is a foul, a very severe foul, you can go to the player and say to him, “Next time, I will give you a red card and you will go to the shower.” But you can say that only if the player is willing to hear that sentence. Sometimes if you say that sentence, you will not calm down the situation. You will make it worse. In situations like these, you have to feel it. You have to feel it in in few seconds. You have to feel if that sentence is appropriate. It is exactly the same in my job. It happens sometimes – not a lot. But it happens sometimes that I asked for a meeting with someone who had a professional issue and something is wrong. We sit down in the room. I say, “Hello, how are you?” I hear the response from that person and I receive the energy. And then I say, okay, and we discussed about something else. But I never bring to the table the point I wanted to discuss, because it is my way to respect the person. I can I can have that meeting to talk about the issue maybe one day later or two days later. And it’s the same. This comes from soccer. Because in soccer, you can use a sentence and it works perfectly. But if you use the same sentence with another player, and it’s a drama. And it’s the same in business.

Do you think there’s a difference teaching European students and Singaporean students?

In Europe, you will have students in class that will ask you 1 million questions. They will not hesitate to challenge you. Even if you have a PhD or two PhDs, they don’t care. They challenge you. In Singapore or Asian students, they want to challenge you, but they want to be so respectful, that sometimes they do not ask the questions. So it means that when you are in the classroom, even if they disagree with you, even if what you say is wrong to them, they don’t say it. And I love this challenge. Because you have to respect the culture, you have to respect that for those students, it is not easy to ask a question to someone who has a PhD in economics and try to challenge the professor. But you have to make sure that they have enough trust in you that the atmosphere in class is peaceful and conducive for them when they really want to speak.

How about the hospitality industries in Switzerland and Singapore. What do you think are the differences there?

In Switzerland hospitality is something that we have been working on, for a long time – more than 100 years. And now, of course, we are experts because we know the rules, implicit or explicit rules of being a wonderful, outstanding, hospitable person, or industry. Singapore is a new country. It’s a very, very young country. But since the very beginning, when I see how the government behaves in Singapore, how much effort they put in that they want to catch up, they want to be at an excellent level as soon as possible. And this is why Switzerland and Singapore have been in contact since the very beginning and have been in contact since a long time. Because they have the same objective, which is excellence. So there is difference in the sense that in Switzerland, there is this history but in Singapore, there is less history, but there is a huge amount of knowledge.

Let’s switch back to football.Who are you supporting this World Cup?

I have always been someone who supports any team that considers soccer as a fair-play game. Fair play is all about fair competition, respect, team spirit and equality. I particularly enjoy watching the less popular teams trying their very best to succeed.

That’s a true referee’s answer right there! Alright, who do you think is going to win the World Cup? 

If I had to pick one, I would go with France again.

What kind of leadership does it take to lead a nation in a World Cup?

In my opinion and from what I’ve seen, players are not used to playing together, and for that, you will need a leader that is able to manage in a start-up mode. Meaning, bringing structure and people together even though the players don’t know each other extremely well.

 Are there any managers or captains participating in the World Cup whose leadership you admire?

My favourite captain in the past was Carles Puyol. Now, with me being a full-time dean, opening up the Singapore campus has taken most of my recent time and following those at the helm in soccer lately has become less of a priority.

Today you’re tasked with producing the talent who will take Singapore’s hospitality to the next level. That is quite a huge ask for you as a leader. So what does leadership mean to you?

I think a good leader is someone who inspires the staff, the faculty members, the students to be the leaders of their job. If they believe that they are doing something for me, or for the institution, but not for themselves, then I didn’t succeed as a leader. As a leader, I really need to make sure that what you’re doing is for you. Like this interview. Why are you doing interviews? Because someone asked you to do this interview or because you decided to meet someone – a referee that suddenly became a Dean and that can possibly bring you new ideas, new perspectives. (Author’s note: it’s the latter) It’s the way I want the staff and the students and everyone at EHL to think. I get mad when I see managers of hospitality companies telling the staff, “You have to smile in front of the customer.” This is not leadership. This is micromanagement.

I would tell my staff, “The customers are spending their holidays with us to experience something magic. What magic can you bring to them?”


written by.

Suffian Hakim

Senior Writer, Augustman Singapore
Senior Writer at Augustman inside the office. Bestselling author, screenwriter, playwright and Nutella addict outside the office. Covers everything from cars to culture to sustainability. Has spent over ten years writing self-referential author bios such as this.
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