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.


Coca Cola then who? In the UK it’s Warburtons

March 9, 2007


A Nielsen survey ranks Coca Cola as Britain’s best selling grocery brand. It is followed by Warburtons, a rather less well-known fifth-generation family business of bread makers. The firms represent two contrasting stories of built-to-last businesses.

How to grow a perfect English lawn. First you prepare the ground. Then you seed it, treat it, water it, mow it and roll it carefully… For a century or so.

The timescale for creating a certain kind of excellence can be applied to British family firms, among whom Warburtons is now attracting attention. It has moved unobtrusively to the top of the list of best-selling grocery brands in the UK, second only to that mighty purveyor of bubbly drinks, Coca-Cola.

I am not one of the world’s adventurous shoppers. I carry out my supermarket runs on semi-automatic pilot, alerted only when my semi-automatic reach fails to put me in contact with the required item it has been programmed for. At the bread section, I reach for the unfailingly available loaf of Warburton’s (medium sliced, family size). There is something comfortingly familiar in the slightly waxed packaging, and the red white and blue colours (that’s it. They are the Union Jack colours).

Traditional? Maybe. Successful? Definitely. According to Neilsen’s poll for Checkout magazine, it has unobtrusively moved up the rankings to become Britain’s second most successful grocery brand. The two competitive brands, from larger organizations, come in at number four (Hovis) and nine (Kingsmead).

Built to last

Coca Cola and Warburtons have a few things in common. The companies are both obviously built-to-last, to borrow a phrase. Coca Cola can trace its origins to 1884, when John Stith Pemberton invented his Coca-wine, and later the non-alcoholic Coca Cola. George and Thomas Warburton had begun breadmaking a few years earlier.

The similarities pretty much end there. If this were a morality tale, Warburtons would be one of the World’s greatest business empires, and Coca Cola would be a footnote in history, destroyed when the morphine addicted John Stith sold the rights to his company to two differing business groups, while his alcoholic son Charley refused to accept this and continued to manufacture and market a third version of the product.

The Family Firm and the Global Business

The Coca Cola story has been become a business classic, studied and dissected ad nauseam. The fortunes of war, and the business generated from the US forces overseas; the fifty billion servings every day across two hundred countries around the World.

Meanwhile, after George and Thomas, came successive generations of the Warburton family to today’s chairman Jonathon. It has achieved unobtrusive and admirable success as first a local firm, and then through its expansion plans, while remaining utterly dedicated to its one big success factor, bread making.

Is this unusual?

You bet it is. Family businesses largely escaped the notice of business researchers caught up in the romance of giants such as General Motors, Ford, and Coca Cola. Even Harvard Business School, rarely slow to spot a business opportunity, took until the 1980s to offer courses specifically for family businesses.
There is not a great deal of well grounded theory about how family firms work and survive. The few convincing studies suggest that family firms are often badly managed; that any competitive edge comes from the founder, with a distinct possibility that successive generations will fritter way the hard-earned wealth generated by the founder.

This fits with my more anecdotal evidence working on business courses for small-medium enterprises. Founders often brought along their eldest son, and intended successor. In contrast, other founders were vehement in their reluctance to pass ‘their’ company over to someone whom they suspected would ruin it.

So what are Warburtons doing right?

It’s easier to see what they are not doing wrong. They have expanded prudently, rolling out their operations, a region at a time. They did not fail to build a global giant. They haven’t tried. They didn’t copy the marketing strategies of their rivals backed by larger corporate parents. Warburtons may well have had some luck of the genetic dice that has protected them from the inexplicably ghastly family member who would have reliably ruined them.

Hovis has stronger brand recognition though its award winning advertising campaigns that have near iconic status.

Of the recent writers on management, the one closest to offering any insight to the firm’s success seems to be Jim Collins. In Built to Last he outlined how great founders made the prototype for a great firm, not just a great product. In Good to Great, he and his researchers showed the merits of the great product or service within the built-to-last firm. Also he brought the notion of the fifth-level leader. Contrary to the profile of the classical charismatic leader, fifth-level bosses suppress their ego in the interests of their corporations. Which just might help explain why Jonathan Warburton is one of the best things since sliced-bread at Warburtons.