Felix Magath joins Fulham and illustrates the limitations of tough leadership

February 22, 2014

Felix MagathFelix Magath’s career trajectory illustrates the principle that a business or a football club often gets ‘the leader it deserves’

THIS POST WILL BE UPDATED REGULARLY AS THE STORY OF FULHAM’S APPOINTMENT OF MAGATH DEVELOPS

The appointment of Felix Magath as manager at Fulham this week [February 2014] has been greeted in the media with articles with a shared assumption that he will achieve short term results through his legendary tough leadership style and that this will end in his departure after a subsequent decline in team performance and morale.

The historical evidence

The historical evidence is unequivocal. The BBC article gives a historical account There is a clear pattern of Magrath’s behaviour which involves ferocious training regimes and tough personal relations. In animal terms he is a horse breaker rather than a horse whisperer.

Fans of Felix Magath liken him to a demon headmaster. One of his former players claims he was more like Saddam Hussein. Another one dubbed him “the last dictator in Europe”. But it was as a firefighter that Magath made his name. Indeed, Magath was to German football what Red Adair was to the US oil industry, a man who never came across a blowout he could not quell. Having led Hamburg into the Uefa Cup, Magath was sacked the following season. This is a recurring theme of Magath’s career – recovery, boom and bust. After Hamburg, Magath took Nuremberg from bottom of the second tier to the Bundesliga. After a row with Nuremberg’s president – he has a lot of those – Magath landed at Werder Bremen, another club he managed to drag clear of danger.

After a couple of years with Frankfurt, whom he also saved from the drop in his first season, Magath took over at Stuttgart. He transformed them from relegation strugglers to Bundesliga runners-up, delivering them Champions League football for the first time. As a footballer, Felix Magath won the Bundesliga three times with Hamburg between 1978 and 1983, and won 43 caps for West Germany, winning the 1980 European Championship and playing at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, appearing in the final at Mexico ’86

“I would never want to treat human beings like he does,” said Bayern president Uli Hoeness last week, “If you want sustained success, he’s probably not the right man. But he might turn out to be a viable short-term option for Fulham. They’re already bottom of the Premier League table, so it can’t really get much worse for them.”

Magath might just be the man to quell all that rattling and shaking going on down at Craven Cottage. Just don’t expect those smiles to last too long.

The style is effective at removing those unwilling to accept his methods. He symbolizes what used to be called theory X management, leadership by fear and bullying.

The strong leader and the last dictator?

Magath appeals to those who believe that dictatorial leadership can be the method of last resort, a short term fix. At Fulham, the board has a reputation for tough action, prepared to hire and fire rapidly. It is hardly surprising that they might believe that failure on the field is as a result of weak leadership. Ergo, find a stronger leader. If the results continue to be poor, then the leader could not have been strong enough, The board has a vision they pursue single-mindedly. It is to hire the strongest – because toughest – manager they can obtain.

Transformational it isn’t

The style is ultimately transactional, the limited method of punishment and reward. Fulham has acquired the leader the club’s board deserves [maybe under pressures from financial backers].

The leader the fans deserve?

There will be a proportion of fans vociferous in their support of a tough leader. They too will be acquiring the leader they deserve. Other fans will not have their anxieties so quickly addressed. As results settle down, each setback will be seen as evidence of the folly of the board’s decision to appoint the man likened to Saddam Hussein in his leadership style.

What you see is what you get

One aspect of such a style is that what you see is what you will get. Magath has no hidden dark side of his leadership persona. It is up there for all to see.

Beyond charisma?

Other tough leaders are also often described as charismatic. The great Brian Clough comes to mind. In my preliminary searches I have yet to find the term charismatic applied to Magath.

Situational leadership

There is some evidence that a situational leadership ‘map’ might be helpful in interpreting this story. A leader such as Magath is most likely to achieve results with a compliant workforce. The extreme circumstances facing the players contribute to desperate efforts. This is the ageless story retold in the movie The Dirty Dozen. The tough leader offers a last chance for redemption.

Some media reactions

Hell fighter could be perfect fit for Fulham

Magath accuses Rene Meulensteen of destabilizing Fulham

23rd February

First game showed ‘immediate but limited’ impact’ through team performance in 1-1 draw away to West Brom.

1st March

Loss to Chelsea forces Magath to admit defense must strengthen. Signs of reality creeping in?

8th March

Headline says it all after Fulham lose to relegation rivals Cardiff City. Magath believes players not responding enough to tough leadership.

2nd May

Fulham relegated. First criticism that Magath is the wrong man to return Fulham to the Premiership


Musical conductors and surgeons share leadership skills

May 19, 2013

Eye SurgeryThe leadership skills required of musical conductors and surgeons are highly situational and yet applicable to many other leadership roles

This idea is not particularly novel, although I have not come across it in the introductory leadership textbooks prepared for business executives. The closest is an infrequent reference to improvisation, or creating within accepted principles or rules.

Distributed leadership

LWD subscribers may have noticed recent posts mentioning musical conductors. I also interviewed the promising young conductor Duncan Ward a few years ago.

Overall, the impression I received of musical leadership was of a form of distributed leadership. The conductor symbolizes and ‘orchestrates’ the performance, and coordinates its execution, assisted by the contributions of the leaders of various musical sub-groups within the whole.

The surgeon

More recently I had direct experience of a highly skilled surgeon at work. My contribution to the performance was as his patient, but was able to witness the procedure to some degree because of the absence of a general anaesthetic.

Distributed leadership as a non-zero sum game

The surgeon was clearly the leader of a team. However, again there were sub-groupings each with a formal leader. Distributed leadership again. This not the simple splitting up of the tasks as was made famous by Adam Smith’s distribution of labour or Henry Ford’s efficiency concept of a production line. Power is not asserted top-down as in a zero-sum game. The conductor or surgeon creates within constraints imposed by the situation and its interpretation. The other lead players and ‘team members’ are not de-skilled (as they are in the classical model of a modernist business production line) but enabled. In other words, it becomes a non-zero sum game.

Footnote

A similar metaphor was used by footballer Robin van Persie in an interview. he talks of football training as being in an orchestra with the coach as conductor.


Katherine Garrett-Cox faces Leadership Challenges at Alliance Trust

April 9, 2012

Challenges facing the Alliance Trust bring back memories. Investment Trusts in the UK have been popular since their creation in the 19th century, as an alternative to stocks and shares for the investor of limited means and experience

The image of Investment Trusts retains the virtues of prudence associated with the stereotyped Scottish banker, and so valued (at least in principle) by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The format took a blow in the early 20th century through financial innovations which almost wiped out the industry, as entrepreneurial competitors found riskier and more profitable ways of capitalisation. One of the innovating firms which became subject to a government enquiry was Aberdeen Asset Management which re-enters the story this week [April 2012].

The current head of Alliance Trust, Katherine Garrett-Cox is one of the most successful bankers of her generation also known as the ice-woman, superwoman and Katherine the Great. It may or may not be coincidence that one of her earlier jobs in a glittering career was at Aberdeen Asset Management.

Background

Bill Jamieson of The Scotsman provides a background analysis:

Katherine Garrett-Cox is head of Alliance Trust, one of Scotland’s largest companies by market capitalisation. It can certainly claim the largest private shareholder following: investment has been its business for generations. But now, as if the eruption of a public row over performance and stewardship – the second in two years – is not sufficiently concerning, the prospect of a hostile approach from rival Aberdeen Asset Management (AAM) compels wide attention.
Laxey Partners, an investor activist group speaking for 1.7 per cent of Alliance’s shares, has accused Garrett-Cox and the board of lacklustre performance and misleading shareholders about the expenses of the business. It has tabled a motion for the annual meeting on 27 April calling, inter alia, for the board to concentrate on improving performance and to consider outsourcing the fund’s investment management.

How has a £2.1 billion investment trust, famed for its defensive, conservative approach to equity investment – qualities that have swung back in to favour in recent years – found itself under such attack? And why has a trust with an impressive record of sustained dividend growth [for forty five years] has failed to rally support among the industry analysts and commentators who set such store by long-term dividend performance?

Dynamic leadership has situational aspects

Jamieson concentrates on two factors contributing the problems at Alliance. The first seems to be a clash of values between a deeply conservative corporate culture at Alliance and a more dynamic culture at AAM. The second and related issue is the leadership style of Ms Garrett-Cox. He notes that

Alliance may now be running out of time [although some investors] would look askance at a boarding party raid from a 1.7 per cent-owning group based in the Isle of Man and the possible entry of AAM which nearly broke the investment trust industry in the split capital trust debacle [a financial innovation for Investment Trusts] investigated by the Treasury a decade ago. AAM’s Martin Gilbert said then he wanted out of the retail investment business. But amnesia among stockbrokers is an occupational hazard.

If you are seeking to build a high-volume fund management platform you need a galvanizing leadership and love of profile. Recent non-executive board appointments have been drawn in the main from the [worlds of] governance, compliance and regulation, rather than front-line investment experience. All this, and Garrett-Cox’s ice maiden persona, has worked to turn Alliance from being a radiator into a fridge.

Patterns of behaviour

The story illustrates the dangers of adhering to a traditional culture in changing times, and the merits of dynamic leadership. However it may also be taken, as Jamieson suggests as the capacity for ‘amnesia among stockbrokers’ verging on what has also been called wilful blindness and a refusal to learn the messages of the past decades of financial turbulence. There is a strangely old-fashioned feel to a narrative of a buccaneering leader operating out of a tax haven. Nor does a simple reading of the story capture the more innovative skills which were a part of Garrett-Cox’s career under different circumstances.

Acknowledgement

Image from Opitslinkfest blog


Mick McCarthy sacked: The case examined from a situational leadership perspective

February 14, 2012

Mick McCarthy is dismissed as manager of Wolves football club after a run of poor results, and a crushing defeat to local rivals. LWD examines his case from the perspective of situational leadership

A Guardian report briefly summarised the demise of Mick McCarthy:

Mick McCarthy has paid an almost inevitable price for Wolves’ dismal run of form, with the Midlands club announcing the sacking of their manager on Monday morning [Feb 13th 2012]. Despite earlier support from the boardroom, McCarthy’s position appeared untenable as Wolverhampton Wanderers slumped to a 5-1 home defeat by West Bromwich Albion on Sunday

“Wolves have today announced that manager, Mick McCarthy, has left the club with immediate effect. The board took the difficult decision to terminate Mick’s contract after a run of form which has seen Wolves pick up only 14 points in the last 22 league games, culminating in yesterday’s 5-1 defeat at home to West Bromwich Albion. Mick joined Wolves in July 2006 and led the club to the Championship title in the 2008-09 campaign, before keeping the club in the Premier League for the past two seasons. The board would like to place on record their sincere thanks and appreciation to Mick and he leaves with the very best wishes of everyone connected to the club. The club will be issuing a fuller statement in due course.”

As fans stepped up their displays of dissatisfaction with McCarthy a few months ago, he reacted angrily afterwards. I noted in an earlier post [Oct 28th 2011]:

At the post-match interview, the manager was visibly angry. He chose not to reveal the origins of his anger. This of itself was unusual. He has earned a reputation of the almost stereotyped no-nonsense, blunt-speaking Yorkshire man.

Checking back I found another post recounting a famous confrontation with team captain Roy Keene, when McCarthy was manager of Ireland’s world cup team. These and numerous other reports suggests that Mick McCarthy’s leadership style is seen as uncompromising, committed, and confrontational.

Credit where credit is due

As McCarthy’s fate became discussed, commentators made the reasonable case that McCarthy had succeeded well with the resources at his disposal, including those successes in gaining and securing promotion to the Premiership for his club [2006-2009].

Situational leadership

The case can be studied applying the notions of situational leadership, still a popular form of leadership development courses.
The approach takes participants beyond the idea that there is one best leadership style. It was an advance over a century-long search for traits of effective leaders. Situational leadership suggests that “it all depends” on situational factors including the maturity of the people involved (the football team or squad in this example).

Four basic situational styles

S1 directing
S2 directing and supporting (coaching)
S3 supporting (with lower level of direction)
S4 delegating (reduced leader interventions of support or direction).

At its core, situational leadership courses suggest that as a team develops in maturity, the leader needs to place emphasis on differing combinations of task focus and people focus.

Growing with the team

It seems likely that some leaders can ‘grow with the team’. It may be that McCarthy had considerable talents at directing (style S1) perhaps finding it difficult to work comfortably with complex situations requiring more flexible ‘individualized attention’ of team members.


If God sends a hurricane, what should you pray for?

August 29, 2011

As Hurricane Irene headed towards the Eastern seaboard of the United States, President Obama cut down on his customary symbolic delivery of his message to the people facing the storm. It was a time of practical action ahead of religious observations

I was listening to a radio interview three thousand miles from the action, a few hours before the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Irene on America’s eastern seaboard. President Obama had spoken gravely of the historic dangers facing some 55 million Americans. His instructions were urgent and precise. Prepare. Evacuate vulnerable low-lying areas. Treat the instructions from local and State officials as mandatory.

An Obama speech is typically crafted to contain a rational message and a style or signature which signals his emotional commitments. The imagery implies his religion, love of country, and his cultural roots. In this speech, the rational substantially outweighed the symbolic.

Meanwhile on Coney Island

I would not have noticed the way the speech addressed the situational rather than the emotional factors in play, if I had not then heard the words of the Pastor of a Coney Island church. The name brought memories of a rattling train ride out to Brooklyn, NY for its famous Atlantic beach and amusement centers, and later a minor league Baseball team appropriately enough known as the Brooklyn Cyclones. Now I was listening to the words of a community leader preoccupied with the practical. Yes, Coney Island faced particular problems being geographically and socially vulnerable. People were preparing themselves, clearing out their cellars, boarding up, leaving their homes if necessary.

But what about prayer?

There was a pause which was filled when the reporter asked “what about prayer?” The question caught me by surprise. Maybe it caught the pastor by surprise as well. His hesitation was palpable. Yes of course. God answers our prayers.

What I heard got me thinking. President and pastor were focused on the immediate and practical needs of their people. You could say that it was a nice example of situational leadership. Thanksgiving and spiritual nurturing comes afterwards.

And I also wondered, if God sends a hurricane, just what should you pray for?

Acknowledgement

Image from internet reporting site Cleveland.com shows NBC reporter Peter Alexander attempting to broadcast from Coney Island boardwalk as Hurricane Irene passes close by


Nadal beats Murray on clay. No surprise. Confirmation Murray needs to unlearn some play patterns

April 17, 2011

Nadal continues his astonishing winning streak on clay. It is no surprise to anybody that he beat Andy Murray in the Semi-finals at Monte Carlo, although romantic British commentators on Sky spoke briefly of momentum when Murray won a set.

Update

The semi-final of the French Open chapionships [June 3rd 3011] saw a replay of this contest …

Even winning a set against Nadal on clay is an achievement for any tennis player. Particularly so for a player such as Andy Murray, who has had such deep swings in his playing performances over the last two years.

A thought from leadership research

One thought from leadership research: the leadership maps remain unclear as to how easy it is for a leader to switch behavioural style according to circumstances. Behaviours can be consciously modified. For example, someone comfortable with a task-oriented style can recognise when people skills are needed, and act accordingly. However, under pressure, the tendency is to revert to the habitual and preferred style. High-level sports contests in general, and Murray’s performances as a specific example, confirm this general principle.

A pattern of setbacks

In January 2009 Murray played great tennis in the Australian open before losing in the final. The loss triggered a dismal series of further losses over a period of months. In January 2010 he again reached the final of the Australian open. Once again he lost without winning a set. Once again the loss was followed by a miserable run of form which extended to this week’s tournament at Monte Carlo.

Meanwhile, Murray continues to seek a coach that will help him make a step up to become a serious contender for Grand Slam titles. At present he is (again) ‘between appointments’.

If you always do …

If in trouble in a match, Murray often switches play and more often than not goes on to extricate himself from trouble. That being said, There are patterns to his play which together with natural talent make him one of the strongest players of his era. Yet in sport, as in strategy, there is no such thing as an absolute strength. Stylistic strengths have what are sometimes called ‘allowable weaknesses’. Murray is a great counter-puncher. This can sometimes be favoured and he is acc used of being unwilling to attack powerfully enough. His skill at breaking back lost serves may have contributed to his persisting difficulty in developing a reliable first serve.

Patterns of play can be broken. A great player, and Murray deserves such an accolade on various counts, can overcome weaknesses. It is not an impossibility that Murray will reach the final of a grand slam event several more times; winning one is not beyond the bounds of possibility. However, (and it is a big however), without some radical developments in his game, he may well remain one of the nearly greats who nearly achieved greatness in the eyes of the sporting world. He will remain an example of the maxim If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got.


The Battle for British Airways

February 4, 2010

Willie Walsh

Willie Walsh was brought into British Airlines with a justified reputation as a tough negotiator. His toughness has been met with robust rejection by the UNITE union. What’s going on at BA?

The global credit crunch has affected every international business. While there are strategic opportunities, threats are easier to see. According to a recent Business Week report:

Some observers question whether BA will shutter or try to sell (good luck in this environment) the BA OpenSkies subsidiary, which runs flights from Paris and Amsterdam to the U.S., just a year after it was created.

Further stoking investor fear, Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson said that he had looked at making a bid for BA but that “the airline wasn’t worth much anymore.” Branson then urged the British government not to intervene to save BA. “It would be better to wait for its demise,” he told the BBC.

At first sight, the news seems unfathomable. It seems that an e-mail had gone out to 30,000 UK employees [June 17th 2009] asking them to volunteer to take up to a month’s unpaid leave, or unpaid work. Such an appeal for loyalty seems unlikely to succeed in a situation where the leader’s style is noted as a rather enthusiastically confrontational one.

The story followed news of a personal gesture by Mr Walsh to work for a month unpaid. But this is too easy to dismiss by workers as being alright for someone like their well-heeled leader. Nor would the new offer be helped by the news that an offer to pilots has been made of shares in the company for a new deal.

According to the BBC

Mr Walsh said BA’s drive to save cash was part of a “fight for survival ..I am looking for every single part of the company to take part in some way in this cash-effective way of helping the company’s survival plan

Strikes averted, strikes threatened

The tough stance cut no ice with the unions. A strike over the Christmas Holiday period was overwhelmingly supported, and narrowly averted through a High Court action by BA. But the Unions continued to plan strike action, probably for the next major Holiday period in the Spring of 2010. In February, The company response was again to take a tough line.

In a ­letter to BA’s 38,000 staff, Walsh offered the opportunity to become “volunteer cabin crew”. He said: “I am asking for volunteers to back BA by training to work alongside cabin crew who choose not to support a strike, so we are ready to keep our customers flying as much as we possibly can if this strike goes ahead.” BA is confident that staff can be trained and certified by the beginning of March 2010, which is the earliest possible date for a cabin crew walkout if, as expected, about 12,000 employees vote for industrial action over staffing cuts.

Discussions between Unite and BA have failed to reach an agreement so far and both sides broke their silences today to cry betrayal. BA said Unite had misled the airline by organising a strike ballot while holding peace talks while Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, said BA was attempting to break a walkout with “scab labour who have had minimum training”.

A leader’s bid for cooperation

When a leader makes a bid for cooperation, reputation is likely to play a part in its reception. An earlier post in LWD was highly critical of the BA leadership style under Willie Walsh. The outcome may help throw light on the old question of situational leadership.

Creative ideas needed

As often happens, a crisis can drive creative thinking out of the window. But are there opportunities for trying out new ideas to avoid the company sliding into further decline?