Warren Gatland: Rugby’s effective answer to charismatic leadership

June 26, 2013

Warren GatlandThe Lion’s tour of Australia has thrust their coach Warren Gatland into the media spotlight. His appearance and actions demonstrate that effectiveness in a leader does not necessarily require a charismatic style

Warren Gatland has appeared in literally hundreds of news items during the Lion’s rugby tour of Australia. Dozens of commentators have offered their views of his strategic decisions. I have not come across any that have implied he is a charismatic leader. Nor had I come across severe criticism of the effectiveness of his decision-making in the areas of team selection and match preparation and tactics until the announcement [2nd July 2013] of the team to play the final and series-determining test match.

Effective and non-charismatic

That leads me to conclude that he is widely perceived as both highly effective and non-charismatic. Someone surfing the Leaders We Deserve site recently was searching for evidence that Gatland might be transactional in leadership style. He can show both transactional and transformational elements in his comments about players and their motivations.

His low-key press performances suggest that he is has an uncomplicated way of understanding the needs of his players which avoids the dangers of showing favouritism. This was important, because Gatland had coached the successful Welsh squad to success prior to the tour, and will resume duties after it. Journalists from the other Rugby playing countries England, Scotland and the combined Irish territories might have hinted at favouritism in selection. Gatland’s frank press conferences may have contributed to avoiding that criticism. The evidence is that he has largely addressed the dangers of demotivated ‘second class citizens’ playing only in the provincial games. This has bedevilled earlier tours including the one coached by [Sir] Clive Woodward.

Kicking out the box

I don’t like to capture leadership style as a fixed and unitary trait. Style is better (in my judgement) treated as a description of an important pattern of behaviour that may change with circumstances. That incidentally is the basis of situational leadership theory which suggests just that, offering style as variable according to circumstances or contingencies. Beware of boxing people into one fixed style of behaviour.

Level five leadership

I have written in the past about level five leaders in sport, a term attributed to Jim Collins. The theory is that charismatics have powerful influencing skills, but tend to be tripped up by their own ego. Level five leadership has been described as demonstrated by those who show fierce resolve with less intrusion of personal ego. Which may suit what we have seen of Warren Gatland recently. But I hope that assessment is not the same as putting him into a conceptual box.

I write this still uncertain if the Lions will win the three match test series. The outcome will not impact on the evidence of Gatland’s effectiveness or style.

Hero to zero?

The Warren Gatland story hit the headlines internationally through his selection decisions for the final test. The series decider took place after a one-point loss by the Lions in the second match. Gatland made several changes. These would have been controversial as the starting XV contained no Scottish representatives and ten players from Wales the country Gatland now coaches. But the most shocking omission was that of BOD (Brian O’Driscoll) Irish legend who would have been playing in hist last Lions test match. Gatland, it is worth noticing, was a successful coach of Ireland’s national team in the past. He had noticed and nurtured O’Driscoll’s great talent.

The selection was widely criticized, provoking bitterness and anger in the judgements of such authorities as Sottish commentator Ian Robertson, and by former Irish commentator Keith Wood. I found the hundreds of comments in web-discussion sites both depressing and enlightening. Fury and anger was directed towards Gatland. The most widespread comments were that he was an inept decision-maker, following a dubious strategy which involved picking his ‘own’ Welsh players. (Gatland is from New Zealand, incidentally, the country most fiercely competitive against Australia.). One more balanced comment reminded us that Gatland is notoriously unsentimental in his decision-making. At the start of the Lion’s tour he left behind Sean Edwards, his [English} coach to the Welsh team’s backs. Edwards Felt ‘gutted’ about the decision.

The most revealing comments indicate that Gatland should be judged on whether the Lions win the final test. I have explained above why I think that is a poor way of assessing a leader’s capabilities. But I welcome comments from LWD subscribers.


Lehman Bros and the Limits of Leadership

September 17, 2008

Dick Fuld

Dick Fuld


Lehman Bros collapses as the Fed refuses the bank a bale out. To what degree might more inspired leadership have avoided this?

This week I changed my mind about an important aspect of leadership. I now believe I have been on the wrong track and asking the wrong sort of question. It is not a particularly good question to ask ‘did Lehman’s fail because they had a bad leader?’. Absence of Dick Fuld, another leader favoured for the same kind of things would have been in place. Lehmans, as with the other financial giants, acquired the leaders judged best in the wider financial marketplace. They got the leaders they deserved.

Background to a global financial crisis

September 15th 2008 marked the signal that the credit crunch turbulence had turned into a full-scale tsunami, almost a year to the day after of the collapse in confidence at Northern Rock hit the UK headlines.

Today, financial markets around the world plunged. There was a remarkable degree of consensus among informed commentators. Earlier predictions of the scale of the crisis were now believed to have under-estimated the likelihood of a shock of such magnitude.

One of the trigger events was the decision of the US Federal Bank to withhold funding to Lehmans. The US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said that the US was “working through a difficult period in our financial markets right now as we work off some of the past excesses”.

A more general view has the following elements. The global economy will suffer into the foreseeable future. The financial conditions are worse than any since the great slump of 1929. Maybe, just maybe, the economic consequences will not be as awesome, but they are almost certainly going to be from unpleasant downward for most people on the planet.

I will leave financial analysis to others, and pick up the leadership story. The hero to zero game is in full swing. The leaders of the greatest financial institutions in America stand charged with greedy foolishness. Cupidity and stupidity, as someone put it.

So what can be made of the leadership or lack of it among the biggest players?

In the glory years, Lehman Bros seemed to have had inspiring leadership. Or, at least, winningest leadership from Dick Fuhl. Inspiring but scary, earning him the label of the Gorilla, the scariest man on Wall Street.

A lifer, he joined the company as a young man nearly forty years ago. According to The Times, he left a career as an air force pilot after brawling with a commanding officer. His progress in the Bank was then upward, but always characterised by a pugnacious edge that would involve more brawls and near brawls.

Under his stewardship, Lehmans became more and more successful and in 2006, Institutional Investor magazine named Mr Fuld America’s top chief executive. Companies clamoured for his services, and he took positions on everything from the Federal Reserve Bank to the Robin Hood Foundation, a New York antipoverty group. His activities brought him billionaire status

He was also acknowledged as someone who offered generous rewards to staff who met his demanding targets. Say what you like about Dick, he looked after his people. Well, yes, up a point. And that point was sometime in the last few months. The Times continued:

Some say that the countless accolades encouraged Mr Fuld to take more and bigger risks, in particular piling into high-risk mortgages. Over the past few months he refused to acknowledge that Lehmans was in difficulty – despite frequent warnings from leading analysts. Had he acted sooner, he would have been able to avoid bankruptcy. A series of interested buyers surfaced in recent months, but Mr Fuld would not sell at the prices offered. By the time he appeared to face up to the situation at the end of last week, it was too late: Lehman was past the point of no return. Lehman staff say that Mr Fuld is broken and shell-shocked. He has lost a fortune, but for such an ambitious man, the biggest loss is to his pride.

Was Fuld’s a bad leader?

When I thought a little harder I had to admit that such a question is unanswerable in any covincing way. Why? Because it presupposes a set of criteria which identifies what a bad leader is or does.

Mr Fuld was by repute a bully. But that doesn’t make him a bad leader, of itself. His aggression may have been an asset to his organization for the better part of forty years, if he is judged on corporate performance.

Was he greedy? Not in the sense judged unacceptable to many of his peers, and compared to other leaders documented in earlier blogs.

Was he competent? In terms of delivering results, yes again.

So what went wrong?

The mother of all crises, arguably triggered by the unintended consequences of the decisions of leaders such as Fuld of Lehmans, Coyne of Bear Sterns, Crux of Morgan Stanley and Applegarth of Northern Rock.

The actions of the leaders of financial institutions have to be studied very carefully to see what might have been done to have made a significant and positive difference.

I am inclined to see a series of dramatic stories in which the leaders are not so much stupid as unable to recognize the risks they were taken. Not so much reckless or greedy as stuck in the comfort zone which was continuing to bring success. Their actions had contributed to the establishment of financial structure and norms of behaviour which worked. Unfortunately, they were not the bountiful and benign structures that they were taken for.

These leaders had made it by a Darwinian process that had selected them, because they were trusted to deliver the numbers. They were the leaders that the financial system deserved. Now it is paying the price.

Can leaders make a difference?

They sure can. These case examples suggest leaders can fail to break out of dominant beliefs about their businesses.

Might there be leaders out there in financial institutions who conform more to the Jim Collins picture of a creator of companies built to last? Who will overcome the overpowering effect of denial? I think so. But I’m not going to name any names.

Postscript

This week I changed my mind about an important aspect of leadership. I now believe I have been on the wrong track and asking the wrong sort of question. It is not a particularly good question to ask ‘did Lehman’s fail because they had a bad leader?’. Absence of Dick Fuld, another leader favoured for the same kind of things would have been in place. Lehmans, as with the other financial giants, acquired the leaders judged best in the wider financial marketplace. They got the leaders they deserved.

I also believe there has been a consistent prevailing set of conditions in which leaders are judged on operational success to an extent that there has been a splitting of the moral and the operational dimensions. It is similar to the belief about keeping politics distinct from sport, when a moment’s reflection should be enough to show the impossiblity of such a belief translating into the world of human events. (We even forgot the recognition of the short-termism the system was encouraging).

And yes, as my colleague Professor Peter Kawalek has been arguing, business educators risk standing accused of ignoring the banality of the bottom line, as we collude in preparing our graduates to fit into a financial system that has been a significant factor in the conditions that have unleased this economic tsunami around the globe


AIG plumps for Willumstad: What took them so long?

July 14, 2008

Update

AIG came to the brink of disaaster in the credit crunch of September 2008. Its newly appointed leader Bob Willumstad may be just the sort of person to steer them out of the current crisis. But will he be given the opportunity?

Original post follows

Bob Willumstad at 62 seemed to have missed out on his dream of running a major corporation. Now he heads the troubled giant AIG. His track record is admirable. Which raises the question: what took appointment boards so long to pick him?

Robert Willumstad was one of the names in the hat in the leadership merry-go-round at City Group with Chuck Prince and Vikram Pandit. He then became part of AIG, another company with leadership difficulties, but still not in the top job.

The Economist

The Economist picks up the story

On June 15th [2008] Mr Willumstad was hastily installed as chief executive of AIG, following the forced resignation of Martin Sullivan after only three years at the helm. He comes with a pedigree few can match. He played a big part in assembling Citi, smoothing over difficult takeovers…But he was also good at the less glamorous stuff largely thanks to tight cost control.

He seems to have ruffled very few feathers along the way. Former colleagues put this down to a combination of unobtrusiveness and honesty. “He’s quiet but very effective,” says Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, who worked alongside Mr Willumstad at Citi. “You get the truth with him. There’s no political agenda.”
Many Citibankers had hoped he would return to take the top job when Mr Prince resigned [November 2007 when]the board approached him but eventually plumped for Vikram Pandit. These qualities set the “quiet giant”, as the six-foot-three Mr Willumstad was once dubbed, in contrast to the blokeish Mr Sullivan and the imperious Mr Greenberg

What took them so long?

One possibility is that quiet competence is often trumped by the more visible characteristics and extraverted style associated with so-called charismatic leaders.

Leaderswedeserve has from time to time returned to the idea of the non-charismatic leader, modest and of fierce resolve. These features were considered to be under-appreciated in many successful leaders, who remained relatively invisible in the heroic accounts in the business press.

Willustad, the quiet giant, may be one more exemplar of the fifth level leader, (Jim Collins) who eventually succeeds, where more blokeish or imperious figures fail. If he does, he also illustrates how so often boards acquire the leaders they deserve.


Avram Grant is a Jim Collins sort of Leader

May 11, 2008

Soft-spoken. Uncomfortable in the limelight. But more successful than many charismatic leaders. Avram Grant fits the description of the fifth-level leader identified by management guru Jim Collins

Got it. I have been wondering about the apparent contradiction between Avram Grant’s success at Chelsea Football Club, and the continued doubts cast on his leadership skills by many people, including Chelsea’s own fans. He fits the description of a successful leader according to a recent theory which I will outline below.

Doubts about his capabilities are mostly attributed to the selection process. Roman Abramovitch is the wealthiest owner of any football club in the world. He has bankrolled Chelsea to acquire some of the best footballers in the world. He even acquired someone of substantial pedigree to manage the club, one Jose Mourinho.

Jose’s tale has been thoroughly reported. The charismatic of charismatics whose earlier successes appeared to be continuing at Chelsea. Jose did well. But in the language of the Monty Python character, what did Jose ever really do for Roman? Did his team win the European cup? No. Did it win the Premier league? Well, not every year. Did it play delightful football like their rivals Arsenal and Manchester United? No. Did Jose show his gratitude when Roman bought him the great Russian striker Shevchenko? Niet.

There’s no mystery about Jose’s departure. Mourinho had a track-record as someone who expects to be in charge, rather than the salary-man of a wealthy owner. At Chelsea there was a great salary, but he was still a salary-man. Furthermore, if Roman wanted somebody different, he could afford to make that happen.

So Jose went. Faithful fans began their period of mourning. But then the story took a surprising turn. Roman had already brought Avram into the club, to ‘help’ Jose. (‘And had Jose been grateful?’ you ask. Enough of that. ) Avram was put in Jose’s place, despite the little difficulty of qualifications.

The Chelsea fans remained mostly in thrall to the deposed manager. The charismatic magic of Jose persisted with them, as with the media commentators who had been capitivated by his telegenic style and amusing quotes at press conferences.

Why did Roman pick Avram?

The popular explanation was that Roman Abramovich brought in a friend, someone he trusted, someone who would not cause trouble. It seemed likely that said friend was a stop-gap until Roman could line-up the best coach that money could buy who wasn’t Jose Mourinho, perhaps at the end of the season.

There is some logic to the suggestion. Roman is playing a strategic chess game that is more than one-move long.

Note to non-chess players. The most powerful fighting piece in chess is the queen. But the most important piece is the king. A player can sacrifice the queen and still win the game. You can’t sacrifice the king, except in a symbolic gesture of resigning the game. In this game, Jose was a valued player, but could always be sacrificed in the interests of the king.

A moment’s thought would at least suggest that Avram might have chosen someone of considerable competence. Friendship was unlikely to be the only factor in the decision-making process.

Avram gets the full treatment

Time passes. Chelsea fans continue to mourn the departure of Jose. The new manager is utterly uncomfortable in public. In press conferences he is ridiculed for his apparently lethargic style. Can this man motivate anybody? Avram gets the treatment usually reserved for coaches of the England football team.

There was one important difference

There was one important difference in the new manager’s performance at Chelsea (compared with, say Steve McClaren’s for England). Avram’s team continued to win.

You could even say they go from strength to strength. There are a few embarrassing losses in cup-games. Then some journalist starts comparing the team’s results with those under Jose. Not bad. Not bad at all. How much is it not bad? A bit better actually.

In the last months of the season, under Avram, the team had caught up on Manchester United. With one week to go, the two teams had the same number of points, and Chelsea were second only on goal difference. Both Man U and Chelsea had also battled their ways to the European Cup Final. On team results, Avram Grant had confounded his many critics. Pundits begin to say that Avram has been badly treated.

Avram Grant is a fifth-level leader

I was one of those doubting his capabilities. I had just about noticed that Grant had made bold substitutions from time to time, after which Chelsea had gone on to win. But I hadn’t credited the coach much for his excellent decision-making. Like others, I had casually assumed that the glittering stars at Chelsea had stirred themselves and played to their capabilities, perhaps urged on by the formidable personality of captain John Terry.

Then, this morning, [May 10th 2008] Eureka! What had I been teaching on that leadership programme recently? The theory of the fifth-level leader. Jim Collins chronicles the successes of fifth-level leaders, and the limitations in the long-run of leaders showing lower-level characteristics. The term implies leadership success over extended periods, and often in a rather selfless way in achieving something permanent for an organization.

This was the theme of an article in Harvard Business Review which warned of the dangers of ‘the Rambo in pinstripes’.

That’s it. Avram is a classic example of the Fifth-level leader, who is unassuming but effective, and more in control of his own ego than many celebrity leaders (sorry, Jose).

In an earlier post, I suggested that in the Premiership, Mark Hughes was another such leader. Grant, like Hughes, presents himself as modest to an unusual extent. Nevertheless, their actions could be associated with what the theory describes as ‘fierce resolve’.

The limits of Fifth-level Leadership Theory

Being modest does not necessarily make you a fifth-level leader. Winston Churchill was dismissive of more modest men than himself. ‘He’s got a lot to be modest about’ he remarked famously about one political rival.

The limits to fifth-level theory may be seen in the famous Churchillian quip. He was referring to Clement Attlee. There is no doubt where history places Churchill as a leader. But on the Jim Collins scale, Churchill would not fit the bill as a ‘pure’ fifth-level leader. Attlee, ironically, would. Attlee was unassuming and successful. He also was uncharismatic, and under-estimated.

Remember that fifth-level leaders are less likely to become public celebrities than are more charismatic personalities. This suggests that Jim Collins is right to the extent that his fifth-level leaders may shun the limelight and be under-estimated. Avram may just serve an example of this bias, as a result of which we overlook the merits of such leaders.

However, I find myself resisting the stronger claim that fifth-level leaders, as judged by their achievements, have to be self-effacing (like Avram Grant and Clem Attlee) and that egotistical and charismatic individuals like Churchill and Mourinho are positioned below them in some hierarchy of leadership styles..

Put simply, Jim Collins helps us see why Avram Grant might have been under-estimated by many football experts. But the case of Avram Grant may also suggest that a theory which puts leaders into a hierarchy of excellence may be a bit too simplistic to explain the characteristics of successful leaders.

Postscript. What happened next?

A few hour after this post was completed, Manchester United narrowly win the Premier League over Chelsea. Avram Grant’s future at Chelsea remains in doubt.