Felix Magath joins Fulham and illustrates the limitations of tough leadership

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

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4 Responses to Felix Magath joins Fulham and illustrates the limitations of tough leadership

  1. Torsten says:

    He did manage to win the league with Wolfsburg and Bayern too who might not have too so his style seems to work at all levels. I aggree though he does single out players to make an example of them which install compliance in the rest of the team. In Wolfsburg it was Diego, a talented Midfield player and in Bremen it was Ailton, Bundesliga top scorer. I hope he does do well though as he certainly ignites differences in opinion.

  2. Thanks Thorsten,

    There are two points I find interesting. He has had remarkable success, and yet has been fired seven times. The shift to a different culture sakes it tougher for him at Fulham. It makes an interesting case.

  3. Paul Hinks says:

    Hi Torsten/Tudor –

    Few football managers enjoy a long tenure – many receive the inevitable ‘sack’ – but does this make them a bad manager? Often not the case – however – I do wonder how many take time to reflect and really try to adapt their style?

    Perhaps they see their style as being successful regardless of external views?

  4. I took from Totsten the point that his style works beyond the situationally simple one of a demoralized relatively unskilled team…

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