Can we learn much from Brian Clough’s leadership style?

July 18, 2010

My leadership students this week chose Invictus as a book or film worth studying. Would they have voted for Brian Clough, if they had seen The Damned United, screened by the BBC this week-end?

A case can be made for studying leadership in its widest variety of forms, including the actions of dictators as well as saints. Can we learn more from studying Nelson Mandela, or Mother Teresa or Ghandi than from studying Hitler, or Stalin. And what about sporting leaders such as Brian Clough?

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.

It was rescreened by the BBC [10.30pm, BBC2, Sunday July 18th, 2010].

Brian Clough is fondly regarded nowadays, not because he was ahead of his time but because he was very much of it, despite upsetting football’s authoritarian old guard with his cocky contempt for them. He would never have got away with his genius in today’s world of agents and multimillionaire egos. With copious footage, this documentary traces his rise from a dazzling young centre-forward scythed down in his prime, turned brilliant, self-assured manager, to the ruddy-faced figure he cut in his sad decline.

When the film was first released, Prof Szymanski of CASS Business School told the BBC “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. …[however] he was a very overbearing employer, incredibly paternalistic – like Stalin and just as frightening.”

Clough himself never over-analyzed his management technique.
“They tell me people have always wondered how I did it” he once said. I’m told my 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”

Would Clough make a good business leader? In one of his teasing philosophical 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 that there was a simple answer to that question.

Acknowledgement

Image from The Tactician