Would Brian Clough have been a good business leader?

March 20, 2009


The Damned United, a controversial movie on Brain Clough’s brief stay at Leeds United raises a question which goes back as far as Socrates, who was too smart to give a direct answer

The Damned United, [released March 18th 2009], concentrates on one of Clough’s few managerial failures, who after less than two months managing Leeds United Football Club, was fired for a combination of bad results and an abrasive style which extended to the club’s board of directors.

The film quickly generated debate. The BBC asked what if Brain Clough were your office manager, and then collected the views of several leadership authorities. If you are a student of leadership or in sports management you might find it an interesting case to study.

People often speak in reverential terms of Clough’s managerial qualities and it’s true that he propelled two relatively small clubs – Nottingham Forest and Derby County – to success they could only dream of today. To some, he is the greatest manager England never had [ the Football Association judging he would want far more control than they were prepared to concede].

He was as well known for his brash, charismatic, unorthodox approach as he was for his success, but what if he and his gift for management had been transplanted from his natural football environment into the wider world of work?

“Every company will say they care deeply for their people, but with Clough that really seems to have been the case,” says Prof Szymanski [CASS Business School].
Clough’s concern for his workers stemmed from a deep belief that it was his staff that delivered him the results, not ground-breaking tactics or the manager’s pitch side gesticulations. “It was socialism if you like …You do see this idea in business sometimes. The focus was on the needs of his players. These were his frontline staff – they’re the ones under the pressure, they’re the ones who deliver, so you need to meet their needs whatever it takes. …[one the other hand ] he was a very overbearing employer, incredibly paternalistic – like Stalin and just as frightening.”

Murray Steele of Cranfield School of Management believes mavericks like Clough can have a difficult time in the business world.

“In any walk of life you find people who don’t fit the mould are responsible for breakthroughs.
But it’s a mystery how they get to these positions in the first place. Those in management always say they like mavericks, but usually promote people in their own likeness.”
But he thinks Clough, in allowing people to fail and take risks, could be a successful boss. Unless you like routine, in which case he’d be as “frightening as hell”.

Clough himself never over-analyzed his management technique.
“They tell me people have always wondered how I did it. That fellow professionals and public alike have been fascinated and puzzled and intrigued by the Clough managerial methods and technique and would love to know my secret. I’ve got news for them – so would I,” he said. And if anyone could put their finger on what it was about Clough’s management style that made him so successful, says Prof Szymanski, they would already be copying it.

So would Brian Clough have been a good business leader?

The excellent and lively discussion prompted by the BBC leaves the interviewees no room for mentioning emerging theories of leadership. And even then, the question posed is too loose to permit a simple answer: Good for what? Overall Clough’s style was connected with a history of alcohol abuse and mood swings which may be shared with a proportion of tyrannical leaders, well documented by Jeff Schubert, Barbara Kellerman, and others. Such leaders are judged as changing the course of history, for better or worse (in hindsight often for the worse). They were often labelled charismatic. Clough certainly was.

There are several possibilities worth considering. After centuries in which leaders were the focus of attention as great shapers of history, we are moving on from understanding leaders to understanding leadership, a process within which one or more influential people are involved in some purposive behaviours directed towards some goal of goals. In its modern rather diluted form Charisma has been tamed into transformational leadership, which was generally been connected with a sense of social uplift (transformation of followers) as well as structural change. Note that transformational leadership as a theory has struggled with the demonic tyrannical leadership style of a Hitler or a Stalin.

Another consideration is a distinction between style and competence. Here we might borrow from the ideas of cognitive style/level distinction which has been popularized by the psychologist Michael Kirton. It is plausible to consider that we need to identify the criteria for excellence and beware of bulking together all aspects of a leader’s style as associated with a leader’s success. Brian Clough had many aspects associated with winning the trust and commitment of his followers. He also had unpleasant behaviour patterns which got him into trouble as a football manager, and would almost certainly restrict his long-time success as a business leader.


Would Clough make a good business leader? In one of his teasing dialogues, Plato has Socrates ask a similar question: ‘would a military leader be a good director of a theatrical chorus?’ But in Plato’s account, Socrates was too cute to suggest there was a simple answer to the question.