One of the dilemmas of leadership is that of idealism versus pragmatism. It can be examined in the struggles for control at Manchester United Football Club
Malcolm Glazer, owner of Tampa Bay buccaneers and Manchester United is unpopular with the fans. A protest movement at Manchester has grown in strength in recent months [January 2010] Banners are displayed at home games. And one particularly creative idea has taken off. The protesters have appropriated the colours of the original team. The irony is that supporters wearing the shirts have stopped the financing of the club’s mega-store merchandising. But even this gesture illustrates a dilemma for the protesters. Do they attempt to weaken the club they love, to bring down its owners whom they detest?
It’s been a good two weeks for the team
Sir Alex Ferguson may consider this his most satisfactory week and a half since May 1999, when Manchester United staged a smash-and-grab raid to capture the Premier League, the FA Cup and the European Cup in the space of three matches. Now, at a time when his squad and his stewardship have been facing criticism, United have put together a mini-sequence of results that launches them towards the latter stages of the [2009-10] season with their morale at a peak.
First came the 4-0 demolition of Hull City, the occasion for a demonstration of Wayne Rooney’s wonderful vein of goal-scoring form. Next, came the Carling Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City, to shatter their neighbours’ vaulting optimism. And today a convincing victory over Arsenal, the team whose current ambitions most closely resemble their own.
The triumph of a symbolic leadership act
As protests go, it’s a stroke of genius. They’ve managed to solve the conundrum [dilemma?] that has plagued football supporters of every disgruntled club in the land: how to stage a protest and still celebrate a victory. When I saw the focus of the ‘Love United, Hate Glazer’ campaign it struck me as a decidedly limp and passive way to rail against the owners.
Harking back to the origins of Manchester United as Newton Heath was sentimental and attractively nostalgic, but waving a different colour scarf? That’s not going to bring down a corporate empire, is it? Green for naïve; gold for yellow-bellied, I thought. How wrong I was. I saw the effect at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. The mass protest works brilliantly; probably better than anyone imagined.
Why the angry protests?
The episode may be seen as a battle of ideas. According to the protest group, the club has been hi-jacked by a group on American entrepreneurs, loading it with debt and only interested in personal financial gain. The protests were strengthened recently with news that the owners were refinancing the club. The offer document looked as if the finances were in worse state than even the protesters had been claiming.
The Club’s response
Not so, according to the club. Its iconic coach Sir Alex Ferguson has made public appeals that supporters avoid anything that might distract from their main role – giving full-hearted support, and certainly not distracting from this in any way. Chairman David Gill also appealed to the fans to get behind the team.
Gill backed the supporters’ protests before the Glazer takeover but has been loyal since the Americans took control. He denies that United will have to sell their most valuable player, Wayne Rooney, because of debts which stood at £716.5m in June last year . The Glazers have floated the possibility that United might sell and then lease back their Carrington training ground but Gill said he was “100% convinced” that would not happen.
The Dilemma of idealism versus pragmatism
Leaders have to deal with dilemmas or problems for which there are no simple answers. One such dilemma here is that of the two competing belief systems, of idealism (the protesters) and pragmatism (David Gill, Sir Alex Ferguson, the American owners). The protesters work in the world of symbolic and visionary actions. This is akin to the world of charismatic leaders, one of whom arguably is Alex Ferguson. But Sir Alex, as much as David Gill, has to work in the world of rationality and pragmatism. For one thing, they have a wider set of interests in mind when they make a public statement. Students of leadership are advised to explore the actions of the various stakeholders taking this dilemma into account.