Football Leadership: Who are the Fifth-level masters in the Premiership today?

November 11, 2007

arsene-wenger.jpgmark-hughes.jpgFifth-level leaders have become one of the latest Business School obsessions which can be applied to sporting leadership Unlike the much-publicised charismatic leaders, they are supposed to be rather modest, and like to keep out of the limelight, and they create ‘built to last’ organizations. There are some examples in the English football Premiership today who confirm the theory

The Premiership is a wonderful laboratory for anyone interested in sporting leadership. It has a remarkable collection of leaders, whose style and performance are about as visible as you can get outside those exhibitionists on 24-hour display in Celebrity Big Brother and related TV programmes.

I have been catching on the theory of fifth-level business leaders recently, and began to wonder what (if anything) could be gained from extending my week-day labours to the world of football management.

Fifth-level leadership

Fifth-level leader is a term invented by business guru Jim Collins. His work is regarded as technically sound enough, and has increasingly reached a very wide popular audience.

In a nutshell, Collins claims that he has compared the performances of various kinds of leaders of America’s largest corporations. On a scale of one to five, the most successful (and therefore ‘best’) leaders are given a rating of five (hence, they are fifth-level leaders). They turned their organisations from Good to Great, which was the title of a book he wrote about the subject.

Exceptional companies and fifth-level leaders have been explained as follows:

At the helm of each of these companies stood individuals who[m] Collins describes as “counterintuitive [or] counter cultural,” … Surprisingly, the CEOs of these remarkable companies were not aggressive, not self promoting and not self congratulatory. This relatively unique class of leader possesses the ability, says Collins, to “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.”

So the theory suggests that the egoists as a group failed to reach the very heights of leadership performance compared with a group fifth-level leaders with a more modest and publicity-shy leaders.

There’s quite a bit more to go into, and the whole concept is in need of further testing, using different methods and measures. But the basic idea will do quite nicely for our purposes here.

In an earlier post, writing about such leaders, I used the example of Jonathan Warburton, as ‘the greatest thing since sliced bread’ for the bread-makers that had been keeping business in the family for five generations.

Why ego may get in the way of performance

Collins wondered why his results came out the way they did. He suggested that one plausible explanation is that ego can get in the way of performance. A tendency to be constantly in the limelight may be one indicator of a certain kind of ego. Such individuals are (or become) prone to act as if their views were better than those belong to anyone else. Furthermore, what was good for them was good for the organisation (rather than acting as if what was good for the organisation, its workers, and customers, was more important than their own needs).

If we follow the Collins principle, there will be quite a few fourth level managers in the Premiership, and even a few who don’t quite make it even to level four.

Can we find fifth-level leaders in the Football Premiership?

I would say that the style of the fifth-level manager has most obviously been exhibited, over an adequate time period, by Arsene Wenger of Arsenal, who has been rightly admired for creating teams that are built to last. For many years, he has displayed the fifth-level style, which is partly that of an absence not a presence. The absence is of behaviours that appear to be driven by personal ego, sometimes to the detriment of the short-term consequences. As we saw above, fifth-level leaders were not aggressive, not self-promoting and not self-congratulatory.

Among the younger managers, I would nominate Mark Hughes of Blackburn Rovers FC as a fifth-level leader in the making. If I am right, he epitomises the absence of what might be termed ‘aggressiveness in the service of the ego’. As a player, aggressiveness was the hallmark of his style, although he had a far gentler inter-personal style off the pitch.

So there you have it. Fifth-level leadership theory applied to football managers. I would encourage anyone interested in wishing to take the idea further.

What a load of rubbish …

‘What a load of rubbish’. A well-known chant from the terraces, which has survived the demise of the football terrace. Maybe you think that about the idea of fifth-level leadership. If you do, tell me why. I may be a bit of an agent as far as ideas go, but I’m free-lance, and I’m not engaged in a selling mission on behalf of Jim Collins, or anyone else.

But it does help suggest that a charismatic style may not be the only one requred of a successful football coach, and explain why Arsene Wenger has done quite nicely in a more understated way than some of his professional rivals.