In Pawn Sacrifice, Bobby Fischer takes on the world again

November 24, 2014

Pawn Sacrifice is a dramatized version produced by Edward Zwick of Bobby Fischer’s iconic chess match with Boris Spassky in 1972

Pawn Sacrifice was previewed at the recent Toronto film festival

It is a more fictionalized version than the earlier film Bobby Fischer takes on the world, and confirms the relative normality of protagonists Carlsen and Anand who are currently slugging it out for the World Chess Championship in Sochi.

Mostly positive reviews

Reviews on Pawn Sacrifice have been mostly positive. The most negative one I found was from The Guardian, and even that whetted my appetite for watching the film.

Must see?

Probably a must see for chess players of a certain age, although a possible unsound sacrifice of two hours viewing time for the wider public.

Leadership succession: Tony Blair, Terry Leahy, Alex Ferguson, Lord Browne … and Steve Ballmer

October 7, 2013

Leaders hailed as the greatest by direct comparison with their contemporaries often leave a legacy that is tough for a successor to deal with

This point was examined recently by journalist Chris Blackhurst [October 3rd 2013] in The Independent. He chose four towering figures from recent years, from politics, business, and sport.

He takes as his thesis that succeeding an influential leader is tough. His point is that the departure may be made with more concern by the leader for legacy than for the organisation’s longer term well-being.

The trigger

The article was triggered by the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United football club which was followed by a poor start to the season for the new manager David Moyes. Moyes was very much Ferguson’s chosen successor, one of clearest examples available of a leader’s critical decision over succession.

At Old Trafford, David Moyes has succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson, only to find that last season’s Premiership champions are in poor shape, that the Manchester United squad requires urgent strengthening. As worrying for United’s fans and owners is that Moyes appears to have been put in charge of a team in torpor. They’re no longer playing with the same drive and hunger that so characterised the Ferguson reign.

Blackhurst makes the general point succinctly:

Beware the chieftain who has been in office for a lengthy period; who is used to getting their way, who only needs to snap their fingers and it will be done; who refuses to countenance stepping down, to the extent that no successor is properly groomed; and when they do finally decide to go, it is too late. Quitting while ahead – it’s the best management attribute of all.

He illustrates with the examples of Tony Blair, Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco, and Lord Browne of BP. He touched briefly on Margaret Thatcher, and might have added Steve Jobs of Apple, and [another very recent example] Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. A closer examination suggests that the situations and the leaders are too varied to provide a nice clean theoretical idea. Was internal selection possible or desirable? Did the leader leave without being forced out? Was the evidence of declining personal abilities to do the job?

Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, announced his retirement a few years earlier and the market value of Manchester United plummeted. The evidence is that he retracted and spent the next few years considering how his eventual retirement might be planned more successfully. He did not ‘refuse to countenance stepping down’, although Margaret Thatcher’s political demise was closer to the description offered by Blackhurst.

Tony Blair was successful in winning three elections for Labour, which he had reshaped as New Labour. His legacy is haunted by his military policy in Iraq. Blair tried but was unable to arrange a successor he wanted. Gordon Brown is seen as contributing to Labour’s defeat at his first election. Sir Alex a close confident of Tony Blair seems to have learned from his friend the art of personal retirement planning with an impressive and rapid entry into the lucrative celebrity circuit.

Terry Leahy at Tesco appears to have selected Philip Clarke or agreed with the decision. Mr Clarke found that the company was in near free fall.

Lord Browne, whom Blackhurst suggested stayed to long at BP, left after personal problems. His chosen successor Tony Hayward was engulfed by the greatest disaster to befall the company.

Steve Jobs left Apple for health grounds, but had some say in the appointment of his successor.

Lady Thatcher had no say in the matter, although her departure opened the way to Tony Blair’s successive election victories.

The dilemma of succession

Succession remains a dilemma for a leader, and for those considered candidates as a successor. The issue has been around for nearly as long as stories have been written about leaders. We should at least be aware of the possibility of the ‘hero to zero’ process, as an earlier and over-generous evaluation of a leader is rewritten.

An example of this can be found in an article in Business Week in 2006 hailing the succession planning in Microsoft when Steve Ballmer replaced Bill Gates. Mr Ballmer’s departure this month [Oct 2013] was told in a different way.

Sir Alex Ferguson: He’s only human (like Desert Orchid)

January 1, 2012

It was a week when North Korea reported supernatural events on the death of their dear leader. It ended with a reminder at Old Trafford that even great leaders like Sir Alex Ferguson are only human, and will make mistakes from time to time

Let’s make this personal. Susan and I settled down to listen to the game between Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers, the mid-day match on New Year’s eve. The stated odds were twenty to one against a Blackburn Rovers win. For arcane contractual reasons there were no Premier League football matches televised that day.

More injury worries for United

We listened to the team news with surprise but only slight concern. United’s injury problems seemed to have become even worse with makeshift arrangements in defence and mind-field. And the latest casualty was Wayne Rooney, by general agreement United’s most gifted attacking player.
Still, Blackburn Rovers were in turmoil. They were bottom of the league. Their hapless manager was the target of a vociferous campaign to have him sacked. Sir Alex said Rooney would miss the game but would probably be back for the next one. Rooney watched the game from the Directors’ box.

The crowd sang Happy Birthday

The press had built up the occasion as the day when Sir Alex Ferguson would celebrate his seventieth birthday, and when United would leapfrog their ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City to head the league table at the start of the New Year.

The nightmare begins

Sometimes you can anticipate when a team that starts badly is going to get worse. This began to seem one of those times. United were playing as if it were only a matter of time before Blackburn would drop out of the two horse race, leaving the thoroughbreds to canter on to the winning post. But Blackburn defended grimly then broke away and scored. “That’s what the neutrals wanted” said the commentator. “Now we’ve got a game on our hands”.

The nightmare continues

At half time the game remained one goal in Blackburn’s favour. United’s patched-up team had begun to run out of attacking ideas. Then the next blow. Another breakaway goal. The inexperienced defence exposed again.

A brief time of hope, and then

Unlike proper nightmares, there was a brief time of hope. United scored within minutes of conceding Blackburn’s second goal. But then the nightmare continued. Yet another piece of poor defending by United and Blackburn score again. The Old Trafford fans were silenced, as their lambs were despatched. The game ended Manchester United 2 Blackburn Rovers 3. “It’s a disaster” said Sir Alex

The story behind the story: bend it like Beckham?

Within hours the story behind the story broke. Wayne Rooney had mightily displeased Sir Alex, and had been dropped as a disciplinary measure. It all sounded a bit like the famous David Beckham episode resulting in Beckham’s injury from a flying boot, not on the field but in the dressing room.

Perhaps coincidentally, Rooney had made a very public joke about that incident a few days earlier. He had also broken the strict training regime having dinner with a few players and wives after the last United match. A confrontation with the notoriously prickly Sir Alex, and some punishment was inevitable.

He’s only human

I couldn’t help remembering the words of a stable girl after another great sporting personality, Desert Orchid, failed surprisingly. “He’s only human” she said in Dessie’s defence.

Maybe we should remember the same point about Sir Alex. Even the greatest leaders sometimes struggle with the dilemmas they have to deal with.

Life of Riley

June 23, 2011

Pat Riley now of Miami Heat is a basketball coaching legend. His leadership style bears some comparison with Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United Football Club. What might their careers tell us about business success?

Tudor Rickards

A young man brought up in tough early circumstances goes on to become one of the all time legends of his sport as a coach of the highest quality and a great motivator. He became known as a master of press relations, and a coiner of memorable phrases. His playing career was successful enough, but he was never regarded as in the same class as the world beaters he went on to coach and motivate.

Abrasive but sensitive

He is often described as charismatic. He was to become rich and famous beyond the expectations of his early years. His management style is regarded as abrasive although showing unexpected sensitivity to a player’s emotional needs from time to time. He enjoys the good life outside his professional work.

Sir Alex or Pat?

Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United or Pat Riley of Miami Heat? The facts fit the public picture of both men equally well. They were actually written about Pat Riley.

Now President of The Miami HEAT, Pat Riley posted 50-plus winning seasons in 13 consecutive years, which is unprecedented in the NBA. Riley’s 137 playoff victories rank first in league post-season annuals as the only coach to secure 100 or more playoff victories. He surpassed the legendary Red Auerbach’s 99-playoff wins in 1990. Pat has won six world championships as a player and coach. His speeches before hundreds of corporations have earned him the title of “America’s Greatest Motivational Speaker.” His philosophy is based upon winning, leadership, mastery, change, and personal growth as well as understanding and controlling the shifting dynamics of a team any team, whether it is a small company, a giant corporation, a city, or a group of athletes. He worked with one of the greatest stars of his sport but the relationship went wrong. The club wasn’t big enough for both of them.

Art follows life

In one of those coincidences, executives in Miami will be studying a hypothetical case of a sports motivator who has written a book called “Leadership is for winners not for whingers”. [Probably a Brit. A whinger is someone who constantly blames others for their problems]. The executives will learn how to weigh the evidence and assess the merits of such claims, as part of a leadership programme. I am getting ready for questions about basketball …

Study note

This post was written for study by executive students at Manchester Business School’s Miami-based MBA course as part of the introductory module Global Events and Leadership.

“For Sir Bobby (Charlton) and the Boss” 

May 25, 2011

Susan Moger

When Manchester United play Barcelona in the European Cup Final on May 30 2011 they do so in an atmosphere rich in memory and expectations. There are echoes of Henry 5th’s famous battle cry “God for Harry, England and St George”

Memory because Manchester United’s first victory in the competition occurred at Wembley in 1968 against Benfica. Bobby Charlton led a team managed by Sir Matt Busby, built with the core of players who had survived the Munich air crash of 1958. Expectations because a victory would give Sir Alex Ferguson his third European Championship, an achievement to crown his 19th title in the top flight of English football.

Will tension heighten performance?

What effect might this cauldron of tension, expectations and emotion have on the performance of the Manchester United players? The effect could heighten their state of arousal, a physiological state which releases energy and intensifies the drive to perform. In elite sport, the balance between a state of high intensity and composure is very delicate. In soccer, it takes composure to score a goal as the finish to a move, or to execute a tackle in the penalty area, where poor technique could result in a penalty and the dismissal of a player. To remain cool at moments of high intensity is frequently the difference between winning and losing.

Edwin’s last match

So how might the Manchester United players achieve that balance? Sir Alex Ferguson frequently plays tribute to the influence of his senior players on occasions such as these, in particular Edwin van der Sar, the goalkeeper. The final has added piquancy for van der Sar. It is his last competitive match for the club, and doubtless he would really like to leave Old Trafford with one more winner’s medal. Another player Sir Alex might turn to, Ryan Giggs, is recently embroiled in controversy and is the subject of intense media attention. It remains to seen how this will affect his, and the team’s performance.

The greatest team in the world?

As he leads his team to Wembley, Sir Alex will be acutely aware that Barcelona is a team seen by many as the best in the world. Will Pep Guardiola, tipped as his successor at Old Trafford, lead his team to a positive performance at Wembley? It would expunge memories of the hacking football on the pitch, and the thuggery off it, which characterised the first leg of the semi final against Real Madrid.

Retaining composure

Retaining composure in terms of the managers leading the teams and the players involved in the match may well be the key to success. As the players line up in the tunnel, might the rallying cry ‘For Sir Bobby and the Boss!’ help or hinder the players’ performance? They and the fans know and understand the significance of the match. Any post-match analysis cannot fail to take the emotional elements of the occasion into account.

Getting into Fergie’s mind (games). Cathy Cassell may have one answer

May 14, 2011

Cathy Cassell

Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind and his mind-games over his period as manager of Manchester United Football Club have been much discussed in football circles. Such leadership behaviours require careful analysis. Which is where someone like Professor Cathy Cassell may have an answer.

A starting point for studying an individual’s leadership behaviours is to select a set of critical incidents which collectively throw light on the person and their behaviour patterns over an extended time period. That is what sports journalist Michael Carr did recently [May 2011]. His top ten Alex Ferguson incidents are:

1. Treble champions (1998/1999)

2. You don’t win anything with kids & managerial mind games (1995/1996)

3. Putting the boot in (that David Beckham dressing room injury 2002/2003)

4. Rivalry with Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger (1996 – Today)

5. First Premiership Crown (1992/1993)

6. A battle of footballing philosophies (with Jose Mourhino’s Chelsea 2006/2007)

7. A dramatic turnaround (Arsenal snatch championship defeat in March 2003)

8. Surpassing Liverpool’s nineteen league titles (to be confirmed, Confirmed May 14th 2011. 2010/2011)

9. Panorama accusations (after which, AF refuses to give interviews to BBC, 2004)

10. You’ve gotta be joking ref! (FA punishment for various comments about referees, 2011)

First impressions

The stories provide a wealth of information about one of the most successful leaders in Football of all time. They provide ‘compare and contrast’ opportunities with two other great managers (Wenger and Mourniho). They remind us that leaders are humans with human faults and weaknesses. A besotted fan might find plausible explanations to explain dressing-room outbursts like the one which speeded up David Beckham’s departure as a strength. Leadership theories might treat this as an unintended consequence rather than part of a grand strategy to get rid of David Beckham.

Critical incident analysis

Professor Cathy Cassell is a distinguished management scholar and long-time football supporter. She teaches her students at Manchester Business School qualitative research methods, including critical incident analysis. This approach helps a researcher identify the various themes which recur within a set of stories and their critical incidents. So come on Cathy. Let’s be ‘avin you. How about putting Sir Alex under the microscope on your courses next year?

Sir Alex Ferguson’s protective side

November 30, 2010

Adeola Ogunleye

by Adeola Ogunleye

According to a notable and international news agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP), as reported in a Fifa news item

Sir Alex Ferguson will take his Manchester United side to the Reebok Stadium on Sunday [September 26th 2011] concerned about how Wayne Rooney’s personal life is starting to affect his form. The United and England striker has been hit hard by recent revelations that have seen media scrutiny into his life increase tenfold. Rooney has scored just twice so far this season, whereas last term he already had six goals to his name by this point and there seems little doubt that he is struggling to cope with his new-found infamy.

“I don’t believe he has a confidence problem, but the boy is starting to realise finally, without any question, what kind of focus is on him as a human being. He is realising what it means to be at the centre of media attention for non-football-related questions. I don’t think the boy can turn a corner at the moment without a camera on him.”

“Is charisma enough?”

Over the past 36 years, Sir Alex Ferguson, who has mostly been portrayed as a charismatic leader, has a bevy of achievements as proof of his undeniable talent and outstanding expertise as a football coach and sports leader. Fergie as he is widely called is also known for his mind games and bullying methods in and out of the dressing room, even with the press, the English FA and match officials. These, to my mind bring to bear the fact that unlike a Barack Obama charismatic type that involves a functionalist or action approach, the situation of a sport leader is slightly different and though charisma may be important at the initial stages of a coach’s career, it is not enough.

Leaders on and off the pitch

In the case of action teams (like a football team) participants have to perform on the pitch with the coach watching on from the sidelines. The leadership type needed becomes more complex. According to leadership author Gary Yukl, ‘Leaders influence and are influenced by the specific situations they are placed in’. Transformational leadership, a modernist version of charisma, requires that a leader elevates the levels of maturity, achievements and well-being beyond that of narrow (‘transactional’) self interest.” It therefore behoves a sports leader to identify and display a style which matches his of her prevailing predicaments or dilemmas.

Here we see Ferguson refraining from his sometimes autocratic and usual ‘lash-out at the press’ style to a more subtle way of sharing the blame of Rooney’s poor scoring form in recent times between the player’s error of judgement and unrelenting media attention. In this situation he displays a protective leadership side for the young player to help him through this patch and severally insists that he is not worried about Wayne Rooney’s scoring abilities to boost his confidence and keep the dressing room morale.
Ferguson again confirms that differing situation require an assortment of styles in order to meet expectations. He must indeed manage this Rooney situation tactfully as current and potential injury may result in a selection dilemma for the United Manager in the near future. Ferguson’s approach appears apt following mixed reactions and a poor outing at the recent World Cup tournament, in the wake of Fabio Capello’s handling of the John Terry versus Wayne Bridge saga.

No “one-size fits all”

According to Dr Sue Bridgewater in her book ‘Football Management’, the particular context in which football managers work plays an important part in their success. She argues that for football managers, success is contingent on doing the right things for the circumstances which surround them. This is supported by House’s “path-goal” theory of leadership which discusses different leadership styles which might work for different types of task and with different types of followers.

Her proposal suggests that there is no “one-size fits all” approach to sports leadership. Football is a results-oriented business. However, football managers are no longer judged only on the actual performance of their teams but also on all-round management, including their stewardship to club owners, maintaining fan support, media appeal, and dressing-room morale amongst other things.


Link to creative commons image

Has Manchester United failed the duck test?

April 12, 2010

Manchester United Football Club stands accused by supporters and many commentators of facing financial problems which are damaging its business model and its on-field performance. Increasing evidence suggests they may be right

It is rarely easy to establish with confidence whether a corporate strategy has gone completely wrong. It is left to investors to weigh up the probabilities and back their hunch with their money. However black and white things seem, there are always shades of grey to be factored into the decision-making.

A paler shade of grey?

There has been little evidence of shades-of-grey thinking at Manchester United recently. In the last few weeks there have been plenty of disappointments on the field of play. These had been taken as yet more evidence of the failure of the business model followed by the American owners since its debt-financed takeover of the club.

The popularist movement from the club’s fan base has been reinforced by the financial interests of the so-called Red Knights. The fans have been pretty convinced from the outset that the new owners were bad news. The Red Knights, however much they claim to be working in the best interests of the club’s traditions, have the single-mindedness of any consortium seeking an acquisition The outsider may have to fall back on interpreting what might be called weak signals out to the market place, and applying the Duck test.

The Duck Test

The Duck Test serves as shorthand for basing a conclusion on accumulating, if circumstantial, evidence. “If it walks like a duck, squawks like a duck, flies like a duck …probability is – it is a duck”.

This week faced with serious injury crises in his squad, and lack of back-up strikers, Manager Sir Alex Ferguson defended the decision (‘non-decision’) to show interest in a world-class striker for next season on the grounds that prices are over-inflated.

Sir Alex is generally convincing, or at least plausible, in his public statements. This time it all just sounded too much like observing a duck walking, squawking and flying.

David Bellion and Alex Ferguson’s leadership style

November 26, 2008

David Bellion remembers positively his time with Manchester United, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s leadership style

The leadership story was covered in a BBC link sent me by Susan Moger (thanks, Susan).

He is remembered at Manchester United as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s least successful buys, and at West Ham he was so unwanted he “felt like a ghost”. But it is clear from talking to Bordeaux striker David Bellion ahead of Wednesday’s crunch Champions League match [that he remembers his time in England positively].

Bellion remains an avid watcher of Premier League football but there are few in this country who have followed his progress since he left United.

One notable exception, however, is United manager Ferguson, who sent him a letter telling him to “keep going” during his time at Nice and who has since phoned the forward to offer similar encouragement.
“Those are the kind of things that make a great manager and maybe a great man,” enthused Bellion, who still refers to Ferguson as his “gaffer”.
“He is class – a gentleman. To some coaches, when you leave their club you are gone completely but he looks out for all the players who have been with him.
“For me, to receive that letter after a small spell at United was a great honour for me. It maybe means nothing to him but it means a lot for me – he had not forgotten me.”

More than a hair-drier

Furguson is sterotyped as a successful manager famous for a ‘hair-drier’ almost bullying style. His leadership stle is obviously more complex than that.