What Jose did next: How a leader can make a difference

March 7, 2007

200px-jose_mourinho-07.jpgChelsea football club won a vital cup-game after a poor first-half performance. Much of the change in performance was attributed to the influence exerted by charismatic coach Jose Mourinho through his half-time exhortation. This appears to be a case example of a leader’s inspiring influence. But is it as simple as all that? Are there lessons others can learn and imitate successfully?

For forty-five minutes, the current champions of the English Premiership played like the underdogs (which they weren’t) and almost like the away team (which they also weren’t). The visitors, Porto, cashed in on their superiority through a well-taken goal after fifteen minutes, a lead they held until the half-time.

Coach Jose Mourinho had been captured by TV cameras grimly heading for the changing rooms, a few minutes before the half-time interval. The ITV commentator suggested that the result would depend on what the gifted coach could do to change the performance of the ailing team.

From the start of second half, Chelsea upped their game. Within a few minutes their increased pressure was followed by a goal. If there is such a thing as momentum within a sporting contest, Chelsea had achieved it and was benefiting from it. A goal for either side would win the two-leg tie, and the team would advance into the quarter-finals of the European Cup. The well-worked goal from Captain Michael Ballack was the inevitable winner.

Victory had been billed as a critical factor for the team to achieve its lofty aspirations, following the three years of bank-rolling by billionaire owner Roman Abramovitch. Speculation had been growing that Mourinho’s future at the club was in doubt regardless of the result, although failure would have reduced his chances even more.

The inspirational speech

Mourinho was happy to explain subsequently what happened at half-time. His team appeared to need a jolt to help them out of a psychologically bad place.

“I asked the players to enjoy the situation,” Mourinho said of his half-time team talk. “We had 45 minutes to change things, and I asked them ‘are you scared of it or are you going to enjoy it?’… Psychologically, I just made the players think a little bit.”

The Charismatic explanation

How might we explain the change in the team’s performance? One explanation fits with the charismatic model of leadership. The great leader inspires his followers through his own personality and stirring performance. The overall impact extends far beyond the words, to the instantaneous impression created by the leader.

According to this sort of model, the result of the leader’s ‘speech act’ was to trigger an immediate change in behavior in the players. Through his shrewd psychological insight, and ‘giving them something to think about’ the players responded.

There are other factors to consider

If we look a little more carefully, we may feel there are other factors to consider. Both Mourinho and opposing coach Jesualdo Ferreira felt that another change had also been important. At half-time, Jon Obi Michel was introduced, giving Chelsea the lacking dynamism from mid-field.

Both and … not Either or

The situation is complex and unclear, suggesting that it is some combination of the substitution of Michel, and the half-time leadership intervention which taken together achieved the desired change. The evidence seems to support Mourinho’s self-assessment as a Special One.

Some leaders may have hit on a tactical shift to help put things right at half-time. Other leaders might have well-developed psychological sensitivity (emotional intelligence?). I suggest that the combination of tactical astuteness and psychological astuteness is particularly rare.

So, yes, I’d say that the overall impact Mourinho had on the result was in this instance significant, and also one likely to have been matched by a minority of coaches at any level of the game.

What might we learn from Jose?

This is an important question for those wannabe leaders in football and beyond. Mourinho acknowledges how much he learned strategically and tactically from his mentor, the former England coach Bobby Robson. (At, among other clubs Porto). The half-time team-talk has a ring to it that sounds equally authentic if we imagine it had been delivered by Sir Bobby.

This is evidence which suggests that leadership performance (at least, on the Football field) can be learned and developed, even by a special one such as Jose Mourinho. What of the rest of us? Among the less gifted, those who believe they can learn such things from their role models are probably right. Those who believe they can’t … well they are also probably right as well.