Leadership: why directors should not imitate Mr Mourhino and Mr Ferguson

Soccer players in action on sunset stadium background panorama

Jose Mourhino is the current manager at Manchester United Football Club and Alex Ferguson is a former manager of the same club. Both are famous. To some, that’s an embarrassing understatement.

But not everyone knows and loves football. I don’t love it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like it or understand it.

A client recently sent me a link to an article about these two managers because he felt that I would be interested in the story from a leadership perspective. He was also clearly assuming that I had no interest in it from a football perspective.

To be fair, he has grounds for this assumption: he knows from our sharing of respective life stories that I was not sporty at school, was always last pick in playground footie and my nick name was “four eyes”. You get the picture.

But in my advancing old age I’m now getting tired of the assumption by friends, colleagues and clients that I know nothing whatsoever about football, rugby and cricket. The reverse is the case.

I’m a veritable walking-encyclopaedia of sporting trivia. Why? Because I get invited to major sporting events where, because I’m not deaf, I have to listen to endless punditry and I pick things up.

I’ve also spent a lifetime in pubs with blokes, quietly nursing my pint, whilst they willy waggle about their sporting knowledge as in: “ …no mate, you’re wrong..t’was the Forwards wot won it”. Occasionally I would get a sideways pitying glance but never asked for my views.

I would quietly think things but not say them: a) t’was hardly the Backs that won it for them b) why the necessity to collapse into Estuary English? The speaker was posh and had a First from Oxford and c) the Forwards, er, need the Backs.

I know lots about sport, actually: I could bore for England on “the slope” at Lords; I know, because I’ve been told a million times, exactly why England won the Triple Crown a million years ago – t’was because they were made to watch dots move on a laptop.

And, because I’m a closet Arsenal fan – I can’t come out because you have to be following a club ”man and boy” to have any street cred – I know and indeed agree that their forwards have an irritating tendency to “fanny around” the goalmouth.

But I will never be taken seriously on sporting matters. Indeed one mate was so outraged with envy when he heard that I was invited to a major rugby international he said that “I had no right to be there; that I know nothing about the game and that I simply do not understand that sport is tribal”. Yeah, tribal. I let it pass.

I enjoyed the game but didn’t lie awake reliving each phase.

I also know a bit about leaders in sport. Enough to know that they are poor models for leadership in business.

I read Alex Ferguson’s first book and concluded that he was a genius at understanding and nurturing world-class football talent. But for me he was not a leader business people should emulate and for three reasons.

First, his context was exceptional. Most leaders are not dealing with uniformly world-class talent and in the public eye.

Second, and to state the obvious, managing a football team is not the same as running a business and Mr Ferguson did not run the business side of the club.

Third, and I may be wrong, but I got the impression that he used persuasion techniques that would not entitle him to membership of The World’s Top 20 Emotionally Intelligent Leaders.

I also know a few facts about Mr Mourinho. He too is a talented football manager but I won’t be sending any of my leadership clients to sit at his feet and learn how to lead. A resolutely unsmiling persona works well on the touchline, but not in the boardroom.

The link that my client sent to me was to reported comments by Jose Mourinho saying that the Club had not evolved since Alex Ferguson’s departure and was stuck in time. My client was making the point that organisations need to evolve too.

I agree with this and also agree that one personality can dominate an entire organisation, even after they leave. Culture is reflected in conduct which is observed behaviour over time. And it takes time for behaviour to change. And in that, football and business are alike.

But just as the rules of football don’t apply to business, neither do the rules of business apply to football. And this applies to the timings of the departure of leaders. In business they should serve short terms, develop and then make room for others.

Sport is different. And in this regard I believe that Arsene Wenger has been right to hang in there. He is the Obama of The Premiership. He believes in the supremacy of people being the best they can be over winning. And, despite what my mates say, winning isn’t everything. But what do I know?

http://www.ciaranfenton.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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