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.


Sam Allardyce sacking reveals the politics of a football take-over

December 14, 2010

When the obvious explanation seems stupid, we are advised to look beyond the obvious. Sam Allardyce is sacked within weeks of a takeover of Blackburn Rovers by a firm seeking to strengthen its brand image. Beyond the obvious is the influence of professional advisors

There are echoes here in the recently sacking of Newcastle’s Chris Hughton. There is a curious link we will return to, in the story of Sam Allardyce’s removal at Blackburn. Maybe football followers will already have noticed it.

The Telegraph wrote of the outrage among players and staff.

Allardyce, who was in charge of Blackburn Rovers for almost two years, was offered a list of players including Middlesbrough forward Kris Boyd and former Manchester City and Hull midfielder Geovanni after urging the club to sanction a January move for Tottenham striker Robbie Keane. But having rejected plans by the Venky’s group, the Indian-based poultry company which secured a controlling interest at Ewood Park last month, to rely on advice from the sports agency Kentaro in relation to transfer targets, Allardyce was sacked by chairman John Williams on the orders of Venky’s. The company’s priority is to appoint an English manager with Premier League experience, but a foreigner with a proven track record here would be considered.


The strategic mix

In one paragraph we glimpse the ingredients going into the poulty-maker’s grinder:

[1] New owners Venky inexperienced in football management
[2] Stated objectives to use Blackburn Rovers to strengthen their brand
[3] Allardyce submits plan to obtain a value-for-money player
[4] Venky hire and rely on advice from the sports agency Kentaro in relation to transfer targets
[5] Kentaro suggests other players
[6] Allardyce is sacked

to which I would add

[7] while this was happening, Blackburn suffer a humiliating 7-1 loss the Manchester United.

Complicated but not even complex

These factors may appear complicated but the story they tell is not a particularly complex one. Strategy students will find it easy to draw up a SWOT analysis. For me it reads something like this. Lacking knowhow of football, The Venky’s group seek advice. They are advised by Kentaro, a sport’s agency firm. Kentaro will have considerable influence and opportunities to prove its worth in a nice little earner drawing on its network of contacts. Sam is a gifted but strong-willed manager who knows what he wants…When you think of it that way, the decision to remove the manager makes a kind of peverse sense. It addresses the dilemma of having to work with an able but difficult manager.

The Newcastle connection

The recent Newcastle decision to sack Chris Hughton has similarities. Sam’s Newcastle connection? He was sacked from NUFC by an owner who may or may not have been swayed by advisors more experienced in football. The Blackburn drama appears to have some similarities.


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.