Dilemmas of Leadership Digest Nov 5th – Nov 11th 2011

November 12, 2011

Leaders We Deserve summarizes a week’s headlines and blog posts dealing with leadership stories

The week’s headlines were dominated by news of the continuing financial crisis in Europe.

George Papandreou

At the start of the week, George Papandreou of Greece was coming under pressure to resign.

Sporting headlines

Overthe weekend, the sporting headlines paid tribute to Sir Alex Ferguson to recognise his 25 years as manager of Manchester United.

Before the match at Old Trafford he received a surprise as the North Stand was publically re-designated the Sir Alex Ferguson stand.

Andy Rooney dies

US media reported the death of Andy Rooney, a celebrated and at times controversial broadcaster. He had suffered from an internet campaign which included articles written in his name to damage his reputation.

Hailey’s Comet

Anglo-French electrical goods retailer Kesa announced plans to sell off its Comet stores for just £2. The buyer is a venture capital consortium “Hailey”, rare sense of ironic humour in such matters…

Berlusconi to step down

After 50 failed attempts to bring about his political downfall, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi goes the same way as George Papandreou of Greece.

Teresa May under pressure

In the UK, Home Secretary Teresa May struggled to survive politically after the bungling of a pilot trial of looser border controls at airports.

Poppies at Wembley Stadium

The week ended with a football match at Wembley stadium which had become a news story over the wearing of poppies by the English players.

After 25 Years at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson’s leadership style remains largely masked by popular simplifications

November 5, 2011

A remarkable milestone

Sir Alex Ferguson reaches a remarkable milestone as Manager of Manchester United for twenty five years. Much has been written about his management style. Much has been an over-simplification of a complex leadership style.

The charismatic leader

Although a term that remains open to many interpretations, Ferguson is more often than not labelled as a charismatic leader. One implication is someone whose leadership style transcends the rationality of modern ‘post-charismatic’ management.

Will the real special one stand up?

For a while, his charisma as a football manager appeared to be eclipsed by that of the self-styled special one, Jose Mourinho. However, Jose still has a long way to go to hold on to that title…

Love him or hate him…

I suggest that many accounts gloss over weaknesses in his leadership style. However, even less-than sympathetic reviews of his achievements reveal an outstanding managerial career

The Hair Drier

Time and again, the management style of Sir Alex Ferguson begins with the memorable term ‘hair drier’. It encapsulates his intimidating ‘in your face’ behaviour directed at an individual player who has attracted his anger. Players who become pundits eventually describe it with a touch of masochistic pleasure. Lee Sharpe comes to mind in this respect. He has certainly incorporated it into his own rebranding as a minor celebrity.

The Flying Boot

One of the most celebrated of hair-crier stories involves a flying boot which left David Beckham scarred and needing medical treatment. At the time of the 25 year anniversary [Nov 4th 2011] Beckham claimed ‘the hair drier’ treatment had contributed to his success as a player.

Mind games

Another popular simplification is to elevate his every action to the deliberate working of a leadership figure of genius. Comments about other managers were for a while attributed to his deep psychological insights revealed in his successful deployment of mind games.

As with the hair drier symbolism, an incident has become part of the story. This involved a radio broadcast when his then rival manager Kevin Keegan became almost incoherent at the thought of Newcastle United beating Ferguson’s Manchester United in the Premiership title race. The U-tube above captures the famous rant.

To coin a phrase…

Ferguson sometimes displays his boredom and contempt for the media at his press conferences, which are clearly tiresome obligations. But they sometimes are lit up with a memorable phrase such as ‘squeaky bum time’ which becomes part of the narrative. One recent gem neatly captured his feelings towards the resurgent ‘other’ Manchester football team which he described as his ‘noisy neighbours’.


Then there are the dangers of hagiography in its modern usage of uncritical and reverential accounts of iconic figures, often leaders of cults. There is more than a hint of hagiography in accounts of Saint Alex of the Blessed Hair Drier of Old Trafford

“Pat Riley and Sir Alex Ferguson couldn’t make it, but we are fortunate to have with us tonight instead…”

July 24, 2011

It is every speaker’s nightmare. To be introduced to a disappointed audience as a substitute for an advertised celebrity. Worse, to step in for two advertised celebrities…

It had been a piece of accidental viral advertising. The plan had been to advertise a low-key event for Miami business people to learn about the Manchester Business School’s new programs there. To make the event more interesting, it had been suggested that the presentation should look at local hero Pat Riley, legendary coach of the Basketball team Miami Heat.

My counter-suggestion was that I would be better able to talk about Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, a leader about whom I knew rather more. Eventually a creative compromise was reached, and the topic would be announced around the leader styles of both of the two great sporting figures.

Enquiries flood in

Somehow, the media picked up on the event as publicizing Manchester United’s summer tour to America rather than Manchester Business School’s tour of Miami. The MBS Miami center office started getting enquiries which turned into a flood.

Great marketing?

Maybe. Although an audience of disappointed basketball and soccer fans was not quite what the organizers were hoping for.

Here comes the substitute, to boos from the crowd

You couldn’t say that I saw what had happened as my great opportunity to come off the substitute’s bench and win over the crowd. It sounded too close to an earlier event I had been involved in. I can still picture the scene. It is of an after-dinner audience expecting to listen to Richard Branson’s thoughts about leadership. The chairman broke the news of a change of speaker:
“Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Branson could not be here this evening. But I’m sure you agree that we are fortunate instead to be able to listen to (consults notes) to our speaker (couldn’t find my name) who has agreed to step in at this late moment…” The audience did not seem to agree with the chairman. They looked palpably unenthused with the proposed substitute for Sir Richard. It was looking as if the chairman and myself were rated public enemies Nos 1 and 2.

I would like to say I won over that audience some years ago with a brilliant display of knowledge, wit and charm. But some merciful defense mechanism has blotted much of what happened from my memory banks. I can only recall the final flutter of applause, perhaps because I delivered on one promise, to be brief.

Time to fess up

Meanwhile back in Miami, the organizers had been frantically battling to deal with expectations, without wiping out the audience entirely. Maybe, I thought gloomily, I could fess up and tell the story about the time I stepped in for Richard Branson…

And remember what Pat Riley said: “You have no choices about how you lose, but you do have a choice about how you come back and prepare to win again.”

What happened next?

Maybe, just maybe, I will report what happened next in a future post.

Do leaders make a difference? Alan Hansen thinks that Alex Ferguson proves the case

April 29, 2011

Alan Hansen

Theorists continue to puzzle whether leaders make much difference to performance. That great football theorist Alan Hansen is in no doubt. He cites Sir Alex Ferguson’s impact on the performance of the current Manchester United as a case in point

Alan Hansen has become an intelligent commentator on the game he once graced as a player. He is opinionated and risks being remembered for his famous remark some years ago that you can’t win anything in football with kids, before Alex Ferguson’s young team at Manchester United proved him wrong. Hansen learns from his mistakes, and thinks deeply about the game.

He has reached the conclusion that the latest Manchester United team is succeeding despite being relatively modestly-equipped with great players. He bases his case on the contribution of their manager Sir Alex Ferguson. In an article for the Telegraph [26th April 2011] he notes:

Ferguson’s current United side are not a bad team, but they are an average one when judged by the club’s high standards. There is no doubt that they are a distant third in comparison, but the defining quality of the class of 2011 is purely and simply the driving force of Ferguson as manager. Had he been in charge of any of the top four clubs in the Premier League this season, then that club would have gone on to win the title.

Good journalism, good scholarship

He is referring to Ferguson’s Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City. Each has a well-respected manager. Chelsea and more recently Manchester City have great financial assets through their wealthy backers. Chelsea’s wealth has propelled them to a major force in the Premier league, but has had managerial departures, allegedly over conflict with its ambitious Russian owner. City has not yet converted its financial support into national or international success, although that is widely considered to be only a matter of time. Neither Arsenal and United are in the same financial league, and United’s debt burden is among the grievances of its fan base against its unpopular American owners. Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger is rated for prudent financial management and for the development of teams playing beautiful football. But Arsenal has not succeeded in winning trophies. (Too many kids, maybe?).

What differentiates United?

Put these facts together, and one factor which differentiates United from the other three teams may well be the contributions of the manager. There seems to be some good journalistic sense in what Hansen has written. His basic comparative analysis is not without scholarly merit. But it would be interesting to get more deeply into the why. What is necessary for a leader/manager to outperform expectations? Are there other factors to consider? Historically, Ferguson survived in his early time when at another club he would have been fired for under-performing. A Premiership manager needs corporate support for longer than is often granted (compare turnover at Chelsea or Manchester City). He is shrewd tactically, and his substitutions and game plan often merit the description creative and unusually imaginative. His wider strategic activities are also admired. He gets some decisions wrong, although that is inevitable for judgement calls. He also has had several “great buys” . This year Chicharito (Javier Hernández Balcázar) is a fine example. His selection of staff around him has also been impressive and has spun-off various high-quality managers such as Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce, both outside bets to replace Ferguson eventually.

Reasoning from the obvious

If there is one point which weakens the impact of the Hansen analysis, it is its tendency to reason back from the obvious, namely that Ferguson is obviously identified with success, and it is not difficult to find an explanation for success in hindsight. It remains difficult to dig more deeply for causal links between leaders, their actions, and the perceived consequences of those actions.

Michael Owen, Fergie and Napoleon

July 6, 2009

When Michael Owen was signed for Manchester United by coach Sir Alex Ferguson, I was reminded of decisions made by that other great leader Napoleon Bonaparte …

My musing had been prompted by a group of executives who recently nominated a video for shared study. Their choice presented information about the leadership styles of Sir Alex and Napoleon. Struck me as a bit bizarre, and I would welcome a contribution on the video which I have not yet seen.

Then news of more evidence of Alex Ferguson and his leadership style.

Manchester United Football Club sign up Michael Owen
A cool analysis of the deal comes from BBC’s sporting blogger Phil McNulty

Sir Alex Ferguson placed his faith [July 2nd 2009] in something he trusts far more than a glossy brochure when he picked up the phone and offered Michael Owen a new home at Manchester United.

Owen’s management team produced the 32-page magazine advertising their client’s qualities ..but

Ferguson does not do brochures to buy players. Pure instinct and the love of a punt is often enough and the shock pursuit of Owen, mocked only days ago when Hull City and Stoke City declared an interest, is a prime example

Ferguson has got form for the maverick deal. Eric Cantona was not a regular at Leeds United when Ferguson took him across the M62 and elevated him to [one of] Old Trafford’s legends.

Laurent Blanc was an itch Ferguson simply had to scratch and that was not a huge success, but Teddy Sheringham came late to Old Trafford and cleaned up on silverware, while the veteran Henrik Larsson made a contribution when he joined United on loan from Helsingborg in December 2006.

Do not bet against Owen having the last laugh.

For Owen, the deal is a huge victory. For United and Ferguson it represents a gamble – but it is a gamble based on some sound footballing logic and one that others might yet regret not taking.

More about Sir Alex Ferguson

Alex Ferguson has been widely reported as a leader of outstanding talent and achievements in the world of football. As they say in the personal development books, Fergie has also been considered to have allowable weaknesses: News reports present him as autocratic, irascible, and with a (literally) in-your-face way of communicating how he feels. That contrasts with considerable evidence of a natural courtesy in everyday encounters when he has been able to escape from the bubble of publicity.

More about Napoleon

You will find lots of essay-filling undergraduate stuff on Napoleon as leader, tyrant and hero. Much of it is a poor substitute for reading more deeply. Dauntingly, even that will do no more than rouse interests in the historical context of the man and his actions.

If you have sights set a little lower, try this for an examination crib

Schubert on Napoleon

Jeff Schubert is a regular contributor to Leaders we deserve. His studies of tyrannical leaders have included one of Napoleon.

According to Jeff Schubert, who has studied board room tyrants, tells how Napoleon worked diligently to convey his indispensability. Schubert summarises Napoleon’s remarks on his return from the ill-fated Moscow campaign. In meeting with some senior officials, Napoleon’s first words were:

“Well, well, gentlemen, Fortune dazzled me. I let myself be carried away, instead of following the plan I had made and that I spoke of to you. … I had thought to gain in a year what only two campaigns could achieve. I have made a great blunder; but I shall have the means to retrieve it.”

Napoleon later commented to Caulaincourt: “The terrible
bulletin has had its effect, but I see that my presence is giving more pleasure than our disasters give pain.”

I like the willingness to accept to his closest followers that he had made a mistake. Also the unshakeable belief in the long-term success of his planning.

The Michael Owen decision

I’m not convinced that Manchester United will win a great victory through the Owen decision. It’s a calculated risk, and all leaders make mistakes from time to time. Fergie, and Napoleon before him, for example found that campaigns ending in Moscow can end in brutal failure.

No, my reasoning is because the Michael Owen decision has all the hallmarks of audacity and imagination which made it almost unthinkable until it was made. That’s a sign of creative leadership in action. To understand that we have to look at the processes as well as the outcomes of a leader’s decisions and actions.

Let’s watch this story to see if the great football General has to admit to a mistake, or accept the deserved plaudits for the risk he took with Michael Owen.

Alex is not perfect but is a perfect example of situated leadership

June 3, 2008

Sir Alex Ferguson announces his planned retirement as manager of Manchester United. He represents, “warts and all”, a perfect example of situated leadership

In a now famous incident a few years ago, when approaching his 65th birthday, Alex Ferguson announced his intentions to retire. There was a sense of panic and loss, and a considerable period of upheaval followed at the club.

It was a perfect example of the manner in which a leader can provide a deep sense of security. Strictly speaking, it might be seen more as the evidence for a deep sense of loss and anxiety at a leader’s passing.

Today [Tuesday 3rd May 2008] Sky Sports broadcast an end-of-season interview at which Sir Alex announces his second going. It would have been a notable exclusive for Sky Sport even if it had not contained the news of his retirement.

As it was, the broadcast itself made news. Glen Moore in The Independent reported in advance:

Two more years. That is how long the rest of the Premier League title contenders, and putative Manchester United managers, will have to wait until Sir Alex Ferguson drives away from Old Trafford for good.

In the wake of United’s Champions League victory last month Ferguson, now 66, had indicated he would not work past his 70th year, which was interpreted as meaning he would retire in three seasons’ time. Tonight, in an interview with Sir David Frost, he fixes his retirement date as summer 2010.

The interview is a must-see for millions of football fans. It is worth a look for leaders and wannabe leaders as well.

A future post will take a more reflective look on the interview and at the leadership lessons to be gained from Sir Alex and his leadership story.

New Year’s Day at Old Trafford

January 3, 2008


The year ended on a sour note for Manchester United, who lost their last game of 2007, and their lead in the Premiership. The league champions opened their New Year campaign against struggling Birmingham. A substantial win was anticipated. But all did not go according to plan…

It had been a sad end to the year. There had been an unexpected loss to West Ham United. There had been adverse headlines also about a bawdy off-piste party organized and attended by the players. One first-team starlet was arrested and charged with rape. A furious Ferguson had imposed a ban of silence over the affair, and serious fines on all the players involved.

Commentators and fans were suggesting that Sir Alex was losing his touch as a manager, in failing to appreciate the team’s urgent need for a world-class striker. Ferguson insisted otherwise. As mostly happened over his illustrious career, he had been able to prove his critics wrong, and the team steadily climbed the table, and re-established itself as favourites to regain the title.

As the season developed, normal goal-scoring was resumed. Meanwhile, leadership problems at Chelsea and Liverpool were contributing to the declining chances of two of the four most likely winners of the league. Only Arsenal was seen as a serious threat. Arsene Wenger had assembled another team of brilliant ball-players, whose progress was only likely to be halted by the inexperience of its young stars.

So the New Year dawned

January 1st 2008. A season-ticket holder faced up to one of life’s existential dilemmas and had abandoned the path well-travelled to Old Trafford, in favour of domestic doings fixing a newly-acquired home walking distance to the ground. Through such decisions pseuds like myself gain access to the Theatre of Dreams.

The Game

The game was low key. The players were low key. The crowd was low key. The manager growled afterwards that the atmosphere was like a funeral. His mood was hardly helped by the sentence he was serving, a ban from the touchline for an outburst against some hapless official after an earlier game.

For the record, like every match in the land, this one started with a minute of remembrance of Motherwell’s Phil O’Donnell who had collapsed and died in a match the previous Saturday.

It was New Year’s Day at Old Trafford

It was New Year’s Day at Old Trafford
when Birmingham came to town.
The Onions were draped around Burghers.
And Sir Matt looked down

Down upon chestnut clad horses
drawn from a dark Chorlton shed
protected from fetlocks to dreadlocks.
And Sir Matt stared ahead

Ahead to the day’s performance
A storm in a desert cup
when the faithful outnumber the Godless.
And Sir Matt looked up

Up to the Lego land scaffold.
where privileged people had gone
to cling with Prawns to coat tails.
And Sir Matt looked on

On as the multitude gathered
And remembered a son who had died.
Then we watched as the players stumbled.
And Sir Matt cried.