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.