Football Leadership: Who are the Fifth-level masters in the Premiership today?

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.


9 Responses to Football Leadership: Who are the Fifth-level masters in the Premiership today?

  1. JP says:

    Should there be a Salary Cap in Football?
    Personally I think there should be! It’s just getting to be stupid money in football at the top of the premiership!
    It’s always the same teams at the top proving that football success is based purely on money which ruins the idea of it being a sport! They’ve done it in rugby, basketball, hockey and American football and it makes the sports more competitive and better to watch!
    I do a little Football Betting Online from time to time and most matches don’t hold much surprise who is going to win, its boring! I want to see a team at the bottom pulling off an amazing season beating last seasons winners in a close fought battle!
    Make things fair! It shouldn’t be about money!

  2. Tudor says:

    Thanks JP. How about last weekend when the champions lost to Bolton? I didn’t check the odds, but maybe you could confirm it must have been about 15 to 1 for Bolton to beat Man U.

    The point about the American franchise system is a nice one. I’d like to see more detailed examination, but the FA already has its mighty executives engaged on the task of finding a successor to Steve McClaren.

    Can’t be all that straightforward. ‘Our’ American owners in the Premier League have been criticised for being ‘only interested in the financials’.

    Best wishes

  3. […] Charismatic leadership with Jose Mourinho and Kevin Keegan as case examples. These were contrasted with the post-charismatic ideas of modest leaders of fierce resolve. […]

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. Peter says:

    Hello Tudor
    Yes, the Premiership is a fascinating study of ‘leadership’ – and with so many changes , there is always plenty of new material.
    Collins talked about 5 levels (not a grading system) – Level 1 being an efficient individual, Level 2 a team leader …up to Level 5. You can see, perhaps, some of the great players succeeding at the lower levels but not making the grade as managers. Level 4 would be much more reliant on personality – perhaps the Keegans and Mourinhos. The 2 characteristics of level 5 leaders are humility and a fierce determination to succeed but the real test is that the company (or club) lasts for longer then the tenure of a single manager. So, we shall have to wait and see but I reckon that the investment in the youth of the club will mark Wenger as a ‘great’.

  6. Tudor says:

    Hi, Peter. I’ve been wondering about the Collins leadership levels and football management. Do you know if Collins directly adds ‘loyalty’ to the 5th level characteristics.

    Interestingly, it can work from another dirction. The Manchester United board (Chairman? Martin Edwards? ) were loyal with Alex Ferguson, who then repaid that loyalty.

    Not sure about your ‘real test’ as there are too many complicating factors. I do agree about developing the youth system. I see that as a nice example of a benign structure initiated by a creative leader.

  7. […] McAleese appears to have all the hallmarks of a fifth-level leader whose own ego does not intrude into his actions and their impact on others. I suppose I was […]

  8. […] while ago I nominated Wenger and Hughes as examples of fifth level leaders after the concept advocated by Business guru Jim Collins. My admiring comments included the […]

  9. […] the Level five leadership of Jim Collins. The leader who is ‘modest but with fierce resolve’. This was discussed for football leaders in an earlier post The other theory is of the authentic leader. While many politicians seek to claim their humble […]

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