Dilemmas of Leadership: Idealism versus Pragmatism at Manchester United

One of the dilemmas of leadership is that of idealism versus pragmatism. It can be examined in the struggles for control at Manchester United Football Club

Malcolm Glazer, owner of Tampa Bay buccaneers and Manchester United is unpopular with the fans. A protest movement at Manchester has grown in strength in recent months [January 2010] Banners are displayed at home games. And one particularly creative idea has taken off. The protesters have appropriated the colours of the original team. The irony is that supporters wearing the shirts have stopped the financing of the club’s mega-store merchandising. But even this gesture illustrates a dilemma for the protesters. Do they attempt to weaken the club they love, to bring down its owners whom they detest?

It’s been a good two weeks for the team

According to the Guardian

Sir Alex Ferguson may consider this his most satisfactory week and a half since May 1999, when Manchester United staged a smash-and-grab raid to capture the Premier League, the FA Cup and the European Cup in the space of three matches. Now, at a time when his squad and his stewardship have been facing criticism, United have put together a mini-sequence of results that launches them towards the latter stages of the [2009-10] season with their morale at a peak.

First came the 4-0 demolition of Hull City, the occasion for a demonstration of Wayne Rooney’s wonderful vein of goal-scoring form. Next, came the Carling Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City, to shatter their neighbours’ vaulting optimism. And today a convincing victory over Arsenal, the team whose current ambitions most closely resemble their own.

The triumph of a symbolic leadership act

As The Daily Mail put it:

As protests go, it’s a stroke of genius. They’ve managed to solve the conundrum [dilemma?] that has plagued football supporters of every disgruntled club in the land: how to stage a protest and still celebrate a victory. When I saw the focus of the ‘Love United, Hate Glazer’ campaign it struck me as a decidedly limp and passive way to rail against the owners.
Harking back to the origins of Manchester United as Newton Heath was sentimental and attractively nostalgic, but waving a different colour scarf? That’s not going to bring down a corporate empire, is it? Green for naïve; gold for yellow-bellied, I thought. How wrong I was. I saw the effect at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. The mass protest works brilliantly; probably better than anyone imagined.

Why the angry protests?

The episode may be seen as a battle of ideas. According to the protest group, the club has been hi-jacked by a group on American entrepreneurs, loading it with debt and only interested in personal financial gain. The protests were strengthened recently with news that the owners were refinancing the club. The offer document looked as if the finances were in worse state than even the protesters had been claiming.

The Club’s response

Not so, according to the club. Its iconic coach Sir Alex Ferguson has made public appeals that supporters avoid anything that might distract from their main role – giving full-hearted support, and certainly not distracting from this in any way. Chairman David Gill also appealed to the fans to get behind the team.

Gill backed the supporters’ protests before the Glazer takeover but has been loyal since the Americans took control. He denies that United will have to sell their most valuable player, Wayne Rooney, because of debts which stood at £716.5m in June last year [2009]. The Glazers have floated the possibility that United might sell and then lease back their Carrington training ground but Gill said he was “100% convinced” that would not happen.

The Dilemma of idealism versus pragmatism

Leaders have to deal with dilemmas or problems for which there are no simple answers. One such dilemma here is that of the two competing belief systems, of idealism (the protesters) and pragmatism (David Gill, Sir Alex Ferguson, the American owners). The protesters work in the world of symbolic and visionary actions. This is akin to the world of charismatic leaders, one of whom arguably is Alex Ferguson. But Sir Alex, as much as David Gill, has to work in the world of rationality and pragmatism. For one thing, they have a wider set of interests in mind when they make a public statement. Students of leadership are advised to explore the actions of the various stakeholders taking this dilemma into account.

4 Responses to Dilemmas of Leadership: Idealism versus Pragmatism at Manchester United

  1. ROY MADRON says:

    Hi Tudor
    Good to know you’re still at it.

    Give my love to Susan.

    Here in Curitiba I’m negotiating to run weekly workshops on 21st Century Leadership for the Parana Federation of Industry (FIEP)

    Take care


  2. Michael says:

    Hi Tudor,

    A few things this brings to mind.

    To what degree can the owners really be considered leaders? They may won the club, but I don’t think I would characterise them as leaders. Perhaps, they are rent seekers rather than producers and the fans can see through this.

    Time may well not be so kind for the current owners. For many years, the hedge funds and financial industry took on debt and demonstrated very good returns. However, had it not been for the government socializing these losses, these reputable firms that have a history of success not unlike Manchester United, would no longer exist. It reminds me of the Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of the 100 year company. Perhaps the high levels of debt are a risk that a business that expects to be around for 100 years should take on.

  3. Tutor's comment says:

    Thanks for this Michael.

    I’m wondering how to locate owners in leadership theory. Arguably they are part of the Governance apparatus monitoring (and of course influencing) Top Leadership (Board)executing the legal and functional oobligations and operations of the organization.

    As for MUFC and debt, the figures now appear to be a bit more serious than I thought. In some ways the emotionals whipped up and brand issues remind me of the unfolding Toyota narrative.

  4. […] group at Manchester United. The media campaign is a model of how to win attention for a cause. In a recent post LWD suggested the fans were winning the battle for symbolic leadership. A protest movement has […]

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