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.


Bold and lucky Generals: The case of Arsenal Football club

April 5, 2007

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A bold general may be lucky but no General can be lucky unless he is bold. The military precept has been adapted to explore the current disappointing performance of the Arsenal Football team. We ask whether the principle has any validity – in football or in military conflicts.

The excellent title to an Arsenal football blog post set me thinking. Where had I heard that before? Napoleon?

Well, almost. Turns out that the quote has a football and a military pedigree. The quote can be traced to a report in The New York Herald Tribune of a football match that had taken place at the start of the 2005 season. The game was one in which Arsenal suffered an ‘unlucky’ loss to Chelsea, when a bustling, and as yet largely unhailed Didier Drogba produced what the report decribed as

.. a fortuitous goal, a mishit by a big, bludgeoning attacker

The author of the Herald Tribune report traced the quotation in his title to the British Field Marshall, Archibald Percival Wavell. The Arsenal blog picked up on it a few years later.

And Napoleon?

It did sound a bit like a Napoleon story. That greatest of French military leaders was an early proponent of spin, so we have to be cautions about his words and intentions. There is a possibly apocryphal story of how he would consider the prospects for a junior officer by musing ‘Yes, but is he lucky’. The story fits with Napoleon’s somewhat fatalistic view of events which was coupled with a belief that there is a critical moment in battle (if not in life generally) when a great leader can seize the initiative regardless of circumstances.

Yogi’s warrior

Which story brings us back to the excellent Arsenal blog by Yogi’s warrier. I’ve noted earlier that Arsenal is well-served by intelligently written blogs It must have something to do with the civilizing impact or the other great French General, Arsene Wenger. Yogi’s warrior bemoaned Arsenal’s bad luck this season, with injuries to their main players, particularly their peerless Thiery Henry.

‘So what is wrong? More than anything I believe Arsene is having what could be called ‘bad luck’. Look at the wider picture. What else can the serious injuries to your two lead strikers be called? Careless? Hardly. Henry perhaps at a push but Arsenal tried to nurture him back from the World Cup only to have the French scupper their plans. The volume of football required of the player due to success at club and international level is the cause, as well as a stupid carelessness and stubborn pride from his national team manager. RvP’s foot? What else is that but bad luck?’

Luck, and Jose you know who

Seems to me, that luck deserves closer attention than it has received by academics, who would much rather study risk and uncertainty. With one or two exceptions, serendipity is out there with psychic studies as of dubious pedigree to warrant serious academic attention. Among the less cynical was the celebrated sociologist Robert Merton who suggested that luck could be partly explained by superior sensitivities to unexpected and unsought opportunities.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the ‘lucky General’ in the Herald Tribune story was none other than Jose Mourhino. Nor that the ‘lucky’ substitute was Didier Drogba. The win over Arsenal was about the time when the public profiles of both these figures were on the up. Since then Jose’s Chelsea have won two league titles. Mourhino’s reputation has grown even more. Drogba has largely fulfilled the promise that his mighty transfer fee required.

Even more significantly, Chelsea has also suffered ‘bad luck’ this year on the injury front. But this has been coupled by a remarkable number of ‘lucky’ wins. Although there has been talk of Chelsea losing momentum to Manchester United in the League, the gap in points between the two teams has remained almost the same over a period of several months.

Leadership lessons?

One possibility is that our beliefs are shaped by the sense we make of complicated situations, through what Herbert Simon called bounded rationality. Another factor is a tendency among one group of people to believe that they have little control over events, while other people believe they have more control over events. The positive mental attitude of the latter seems to work in a leader’s favor. So we collect events that conform to our negative beliefs, and assert we have been unlucky. It is likely to be the same mindset which leads us to attribute the success of others to their good luck. As I’ve probably written before, ‘either you believe you can or you believe you can’t. And in either case, you are probably right. Rationality is bounded (as Herb Simon taught us). Napoleon, and Jose, desplay the self-belief of charismatic leaders that transmits itself to their followers (and even to their enemies).


I don’t know if Jose’s the greatest football manager ever, but I know how to find out

February 24, 2007

Jose and Arsene (BBC image)So the Special one’s been at it again. In his own words, he’s up there in a group of no less than eight and no more than fourteen. He may be talking of today’s managers. Or he may be talking about where he is in the all-time great rankings. In either case, it would be nice to have some rules for working out whether Jose Mourinho has got it right. Here are a few suggestions.

This is not going to be very exciting. On the other hand, you might find it useful if you ever find yourself in a fighting talk situation. Otherwise you may want to save it for after the end of the season. Which, according to some Watford fans, has already arrived. Anyway, yerwego. Letsby Avenue.

According to an excellent Arsenal website, Jose Mourhino has been winding up the opposition prior to the Carling Cup final. The BBC also picked up, and provided the excellent image above of Jose and Arsene both looking suitably wise. On reflection, Jose wound me up, prompting this post.

How to decide the greatest anything: The rule of last one standing

You can decide the greatest anything – once you know what the rules of the game are. The greatest is the one left, when you have shown all the others are not so great. Take the London Marathon. The winner is the runner who is not finishing behind anyone else. Or in the long jump, he or she is the one whose longer jump is longer than everyone else’s. And so on. Apply the rule and spot the champion.

But it’s not as simple as that is it?

No, sorry, it’s not. For example, today we heard that this year at Wimbledon, the best female tennis player of the tournament this year will get the same prize money as the best male tennis player. I’ve listened to lots of people say that’s right, and lots saying that’s wrong. The rule of last one standing (or actually the last flopping down on the hallowed grass in a practiced victory routine) sorts out the best in each of the competitions. But who deserves the most money? The last bloke standing (or flopping?), simply because the blokes play more sets than the women? Or Roger Federer, because he’s likely to be said bloke, and because he plays fewer sets than any other bloke? Or because he would get ten out of ten for artistic merit for more sets than anyone else.

See where I’m coming from? We can’t decide if we can’t even agree what are the rules of the game to arrive at the greatest. The more events and the wider the timeframes, the harder it gets.

You mean like picking the greatest footballers of all time?

Exactly. I mean like picking the greatest players of all time. And even if we agreed on the rules of the game, we run into the complications of judges interpreting rules. It’s bad enough in Football with one referee having to interpret the rules (with assistance). But what about that Olympic favourite, high diving? The judges practice as hard as the divers, but they still can’t agree all that closely.

So picking the best players over time is tricky. You can’t even compare statistics. Some clever maths show that sports become more competitive over time, with less of a spread between best and worse teams playing each regularly. (It may not seem so in the Premier league, but it’s probably the same there as has been shown in other studies).

Some ways to decide how to decide

In each case, a general principle can be proposed. Find some way of establishing the what rules are to be used to arrive at the last manager standing. Notice, the problem now shifts from finding the winning manager, to finding the winning rules. See what can be learned from the rules applied to obtain the winner in other situations.

Gonks, anoracks, accountants, and attourneys (sorry, members of the legal profession) like rules that involve counting and measuring. The greatest golfer is said to be the one who earns the most dollars in a year. That’s more or less accepted in a year. It doesn’t work over time however. Note, it’s not the golfer who gets the lowest hole average in a year, a method which wouldn’t always get the same result. Note also, it’s not the football team winning the most games that necessarily wins the league or even the World Cup, or the tennis player who wins the most games in a match, tournament or a year.

Hm… Boring, isn’t it. There’s no one answer. But we can fix it to get different ‘right answers’ according to different rules. Or how about this approach? You ask the best managers to vote on the very bestest one of all?

I think you can see the snag there. How do we pick the best manager. Hm. Or maybe we ask everyone in the world interesting in soccer to send in their votes. Hm, again, lot’s of scope for cheating, and how much do most of those ********’s **** s know about anything anyway?

How to see how right Jose is on this one?

OK. That’s what you’ve been waiting for. You deserve a serious no messing answer. How can we Jose compare with today’s managers; and how to compare him against the all-time greats?

This is what I’d do. I’d carry out what’s called a meta-analysis (phew). I’d have two sets of people. One group would be the rule-setters, and the other the rule testers. Each would have fans, players, coaches, pundits, even referees and other officials. Then I’d lock the rule-testers up until they agreed on the rules for picking the bestest manager. They would then be let out.

Next, the rule-testers would be locked up to reach the answer as dictated by the rules. Again they could come out when they have reported. Their job is to have a league table of the current day managers. We can then see where Jose fits on that list.

This gives us the answer to the first, and simpler question. For the other question, I’m inclined to go for a different approach. I’d get all those game players to play out footie games with teams and managers from all time periods. Using some of the rules already established you could then see who wins out.

Oh, yes, if that fails, I’d be inclined to ask Jose what he thinks about it all… Or maybe Arsene.


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