Mark Hughes, Leadership and Governance

Mark Hughes’ dismissal as Manchester City Football Club coach appears to have come as a shock to him. The manner of his dismissal offers a case example of leadership and governance issues

This story can be treated as a local level but also one with a global dimension. It has much to do with sport, while at the same time has to do with wider international issues of globalization, and governance of global organizations.

The local story is of a venerable Premier league football team in Manchester England, with its tribal fan base of loyal supporters. Over the years ‘City’ has enjoyed periods of success, which have provided comfort in longer periods of relative lack of it, made worse by the increasing success and wealth of its neighbour, Manchester United.

The Club began to change managers with increasing speed. Heroes from their playing days at the club came and went. Outsiders also came and went, sometimes by mutual consent. Mark Hughes was one such outsider, following the charismatic but ephemeral leadership of Kevin Keegan and Sven Goran Ericsson.

Hughes was considered a promising if inexperienced manager, who had been successful with limited resources at Blackburn and before that as national coach for Wales. His status as a much-loved player at rivals MUFC was only an initial talking point, and he began to earn the respect of the fans after his arrival in 2008.

The takeover

Then an event took place which plucked City out of the also-rans of the Premier league. It was taken over by a Middle-Eastern consortium promising to back the club with unrivalled wealth. The fans, if not the incumbent manager, rejoiced. Hughes went on a spending spree to fufill the ambtions of the new owners.

A Chelsea Rerun?

The story was seized upon as a rerun of the take over of Chelsea, by multi-billionaire Roman Abramovitch. Like City, Chelsea was a club rich in tradition but lightweight in financial backing. Chelsea made it clear that the takeover was to lead to it becoming a super-club which would compete with the world’s glamour elite, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Barcelona, and of course Manchester United. The outcome for Chelsea has been spectacular improvements in performance at national and European levels. Another outcome has been a managerial roller-coaster including the arrival and departure of the self-styled ‘ Special One’ Jose Mourinho as head coach.

But the City story differed in several respects. Mr Abramovitch is an extremely hands-on owner and football enthusiast. City’s new masters were cooler, more distant. Their regard for City as a symbol of prestige was less blatent. And they signalled intentions to leave their young manager in place.

The Drama unfolds at City

The drama unfolded. Hughes spent big, but failed to attract the very best footballers in the world. In hindsight, Chelsea’s wealth had succeeded more in acquiring an entire squad of strong international figures, rather than super-stars. And Chelsea had a stronger base of such figures to build around in the first place.

Hughes began his first season with an agreed target of success including win/loss figures understandable to any sales director of a retail consortium. The team continued to improve, but a run of drawn games was producing speculation of how long Hughes had at the club. This week in spectacular fashion the answer was revealed.

The Succession Plan

In the manner of big commercial interests, the owners of MUFC had a contingency plan which was being put in place. According to Hughes, while his team were slightly off their agreed points target, its owners had covertly reached an understanding with another manager. Shortly before or after Saturday’s thrilling 4-3 win, [December 19th 2009] Hughes learned his fate. His successor Roberto Mancini was said to be in the crowd.

Disgraceful, unethical, or what?

I have written quite a lot about Mark Hughes in LWD. Recently he seemed to have been under strain in public. Mostly, however, he confirmed a view that his leadership style was non-charismatic but that of a so-called fifth-level leader, of ‘quiet but fierce resolve’.

His statement shortly after his dismissal noted

“Notwithstanding media coverage to the contrary, I was given no forewarning as to the club’s decision … At the beginning of the season, I sat down with the owners and it was agreed that a realistic target for the season would be sixth place in the Premier League, or in the region of 70 points.”

The general view expressed in the media was that The City Board had been hasty and even unethical in their treatment of Hughes. They had not even secured a ‘Special one’ although a highly promising young figure. I leave the matter open for comment.

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