Leaders and Fallen Gods

Leaders are very important to the success of any enterprise. It is very difficult to be a good leader, which is why they are few and far between. That's why they earn the big bucks. Mortals can only look on and marvel at their super-human powers and capabilities. When a new opportunity arises, when there is a vacant seat up there in the clouds above Mount Olympus, we must look to one of the established gods to take it up. Leadership is not for ordinary people.

This, of course, is complete and utter nonsense. Nevertheless, it is a myth that many of those charged with the responsibility of appointing leaders seem to believe in.

I have long considered football to present an excellent paradigm for business and leadership. The basic ingredients are the same: (1) success is judged on how one organisation/team competes with others in relation to the achievement of easily defined targets - goals scored in matches and points accumulated in a season for football, sales and profit over a year in business, and (2) success is contingent on the coordinated efforts of many individuals implementing a broad strategy in ways that are capable of adapting to circumstances. Football is easier in that only 11 people actually do the work on the field and reliance on technology is minimal. However, while large businesses may involve thousands of 'players' who may be dependent on many types of technology, they generally do not have to compete directly against opponents capable of adapting their strategies on a minute by minute basis so as to outsmart them, and their teams are coordinated such that each person probably only has to deal directly with a similar number of people to football players. Also, businesses are only trying to please customers and clients, and while their needs may change over time, they remain sufficiently stable that organisations can implement strategies that make far fewer demands on individuals in terms of their creativity and problem solving abilities.

As a means by which to examine the role of leadership and team performance, the great advantages of football are its transparency and the uninterrupted view of its machinations it offers to analytical spectators. All players are visible to each other and spectators at all times; there is nowhere to hide from eagle eyed observers and TV cameras. Also, results are there for all to see. There is no scope for creative accounting. A win is a win, a loss is a loss and a draw is a draw. Where some businesses may advertise their success by booking future profits before they arise, the points accumulated by football teams at the end of a season fairly represent their success.

Less transparent is the exact role played by football managers. Even when cameras are permitted inside the dressing room to see managers in action, it is not entirely clear how effective their contributions are. Much like the hidden world of corporate CEOs, success is judged less on personal terms than the success of the whole operation. On this basis managers such as Jose 'the special one' Mourinho have been vaunted as if they were footballing deities. Having enjoyed success at a succession of 'big clubs', Jose is now something of a fallen god. Pep is currently the god of gods, with an unblemished track record of success at 'big clubs'. Given that football puts the gods into battle with each other, clearly not all can come out on top all the time. This would presumably explain why big clubs are still prepared to take any old 'top manager' to fill empty managerial seats rather than consider outsiders. But, if one looks a little closer at the records of the footballing gods and other 'top managers', one might be excused for thinking that all this smacks of the Emporer's New Clothes.

Scientific studies of the efficacy of things thought to possess special abilities, such as drugs, demand that they do what they say on the tin and that all other possible explanations for their apparent efficacy are eliminated. This usually requires many tests be carried out in a range of circumstances, on a even playing field against a control such as, in the case of drugs, a placebo. In many people's eyes the greatest manager of this age is Sir Alex Ferguson. His record is impressive: under his stewardship Scottish club St.Mirren went from the second division to become first division champions in three years; then at Aberdeen he saw his club push past Celtic and Rangers to become not only the dominant club in Scottish football but also to achieve unprecedented success in European competitions; then followed success with Manchester United that was sustained over twenty years. That the clubs he managed were less successful before and after his periods of tenure suggests that perhaps he was highly influential in his clubs' successes. The current god of management is perhaps Pep Guardiola. He has enjoyed success at the highest level with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. A run of three is pretty good, but Barcelona and Bayern Munich are, and always have been, dominant clubs in their countries. They were before Pep and they were after Pep. Manchester City are becoming the most successful they have ever been, but they are now backed by the richest owners in world football. As far as substantiating Pep's godlike qualities is concerned, this evidence falls far short of the standards required by science.

Before Pep, Jose was the top god, but having been unable to sustain the level of success he enjoyed with his first few appointments, and subsequent disastrous periods at Chelsea and Manchester United, in which things got worse during his time in office and improved substantially thereafter, any faith anyone could have had in his god like genius should have evaporated. He now joins the ranks of hundreds of other 'top managers' who have enjoyed success and failure in equal measure. For these 'top managers', success might as well be determined by rolling dice.

Now we have Olly Gunnar Solskjaer. Appointed as a caretaker manager after it became apparent that Jose's continued presence at Old Trafford was as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit. He was appointed in a rush because: (a) Manchester United's season was already effectively over, (b) he had some managerial experience, (c) as a former player, he was part of the Manchester United family, and (d) he would be happy to keep the seat warm for a few months while the club looked for a proper 'top manager'. What has followed has been extraordinary. A team that had formerly looked as though it might struggle in a Sunday league is now almost unbeatable. Its players are playing with an exuberant joy and a passionate desire to win that was entirely absent a couple of months ago. The team's record over the short period since his arrival has been good enough to make Alex Ferguson envious. The apparent certainty of a mid-table finish has gone and now the team looks likely to qualify for the European Champions League next year - either by finishing in the top four or, after a miraculous come back against Paris St. Germain, by winning the Champions League trophy this year.

Is Olly a new managerial god? Is he the footballing equivalent of Steve Jobs? His past track record suggests this is unlikely. Is it possible that the success of the club is not due to his managerial genius but to the fact that he is a caretaker - albeit one that loves the club, was successful with the club as a player and behaves as if he would be playing on the field if his age permitted it. Rather than imposing 'his way of doing things' to 'shape the team' so that it plays like a 'Solskjaer team', is it possible that, by simply being 'one of the lads' and encouraging highly skilled footballers to just go out and do their thing, he has freed them from the reigns of imposed leadership. These players are among the best in the world. As children they shone in the playground, before shining in local teams, before shining in academies, before shining in youth teams and then shining in the teams of top clubs. They know what they are doing. Is it possible that, left to their own devices and supported by a manager who encourages an esprit de corps that they have no need of a 'leader' - i.e. a traditional, CEO type of leader?

Football managers, like the CEOs of large companies, are paid very well. A 'true' god such as Pep earns around £15m pa, as did the fallen god Jose. Further down the slopes of Mount Olympus one encounters managers who have had, and continue to endure, their share of failure, earning more than £2m pa. Whether many of these lesser, fallen gods would inspire the teams in their charge to any greater success than actual caretakers - i.e. janitors - is uncertain. In the world of football, as in business, this doesn't seem to matter. Status is all. People aren't appointed because they can present a rational case for why they would be good for the club, they are appointed because they have the right status. Either they were top players expected to become top managers - like Pep - or they have had some success managing a club of comparable status. This effectively makes the managerial appointment business a closed shop. This is the value of power at work - making irrational decisions on the basis of status: the status of the appointee and the fear of loss of status for the people making the appointment; fear that should they rely on personal, rational judgement of potential appointee's strategic plans and capabilities they will look like idiots when things go wrong. Who could be blamed for appointing a god?

The same thing takes place in most large companies. Multi-million pound remuneration packages are paid out to those who have the right status. Is this more justifiable for large businesses than it is for football clubs? I would argue it isn't. The success of established businesses are not and should not be reliant on the genius of one individual, or even on a team of such individuals. Much of the work that is needed from CEOs can be written down in a manual. It is not rocket science nor is it the stuff of creative inspiration. The job of a CEO is capable of being learned in ways that playing football at the highest level cannot. The jobs of those under the CEO, from other board members to janitors, also require little in the way of genius. The keys to a successful organisation have more in common with those of a bee colony than a football team: routine mechanisms more than adaptive processes and inspirational initiative taking. When the queen bee dies, or a new colony is set up, bees do not seek to recruit other queen bees with eye-watering remuneration packages; an existing worker simply steps up to take her place. This being the case, one wonders why this doesn't happen more often in large organizations; why being just another cog in a large machine that was running before and will run after justifies remuneration packages measured in millions of pounds. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that most CEOs and aspiring directors in large companies are (in values terms) power-driven; i.e. are those that most desperately want to have power over others and make decisions based on status.

Increasingly, in an ever faster evolving business environment, organisations will have to become more like football teams than bee colonies. They need to be adaptive and have dispersed initiative taking capabilities. In values terms these are particularly demanding of self-direction and universalism. Because football is a relatively simple game played in a well-defined space according to strict rules, the complete knowledge associated with universalism and the confidence that supports self-directed decision-making can be acquired by players regardless of their values. In large organisations operating across multiple markets and employing thousands of people, the type of open, supportive and collaborative leadership associated with these values has to come from people with appropriate value priorities. In order to secure their services or develop these values in others, organisations need to abandon the protective and blinkered attitudes of the closed shop that sustain the ineffective styles of leadership employed by many of today's CEOs and football's fallen gods alike.

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