Lions Watch: Insights from a study of international football managers and team performance

May 22, 2009


Scott Williams applies results from his research into international football teams to suggest insights into the prospects for the upcoming Lions tour of South Africa

Scott, a member of the LWD Rugby panel sends the following post:

My dissertation work at Manchester Business School has been based on a performance analysis of international football teams under foreign leadership. I looked at performance of national teams under national and non-native (exogenous) managers. One of the key results from this was that exogenous foreign were, in the majority of cases, more successful if they were nationals from the most successful football nations. Notable examples illustrating this include (German national) Otto Rehhagel’s record with Greece – which included the trophy winning Euro 2004 campaign; (England national) Jack Charlton’s record with the Republic of Ireland; and (Brazilian national) Zico’s record with Japan. The particular cultural match or mis-match between coach and players did not prove to be significant.

In my study, the managers were dealing with culturally homogenous squads of players (although there were still some cultural variations – for example the effect of club culture, particularly on players from foreign clubs – only 2 out of 22 selected for Brazil’s squad recently played club football in Brazil.

The difference in the Lions’ set-up is that the players are not from one nation, but four. However, it seems at least plausible to consider the implications if we take the results and extrapolate to another sport and another international context.

They suggest that maybe one day the Lions will take the logical step of picking a Coach from New Zealand or South Africa.

A more personal view

Setting aside the results of the study (which is still nearing completion), I can’t argue with the selection of Paul O’Connell as Lions captain, although I did think they’d go for Brian O’ Driscoll (quality and consistency reasons, as well as being generally a big performer in the massive games, for example his Man of the Match performance against Munster in the Heineken Cup semi-final.

I think that O’Connell is a sound choice, although a potential issue is the strength of his opposite numbers. In an earlier post, Paul Evans makes the point about Botha and Matfield, who are regarded as the best lock partnership in the world, and O’ Connell may come out second best. This, I think is important for team performance. For all the leadership qualities held by O’ Connell, if he’s getting outperformed in the line out or in the loose, it is up to others in the team to make up for this, which I don’t think is ideal. On the other hand, O’ Driscoll is much more likely to get one over his likely opposite number Adi Jacobs – a guy not considered to be in the same league .

My experience in football and rugby indicates that the most respected captains lead primarily by example, and that other aspects such as physical stature are secondary to this.

I think it’s very interesting to note the absence of national captains. Steve Borthwick (England), Ryan Jones (Wales), and Mike Blair (Scotland) were excluded from the original squad (though Blair has now been called up to replace Tomas O’Leary). It is understandable based on form – I agree there were better candidates that all three of these players initially, so the fact that they are national captains may be irrelevant. Although it is interesting to consider the impact on a non-captain national team player of having their national leader’s leadership role overshadowed by someone else. For example, how would Harry Ellis feel if it was O’Connell, not Borthwick (if he was selected) who was providing the main source of leadership? One would hope, that given the historical nature of the Lions being “all-for-one” so to speak, that this would not be an issue. This attitude has seemingly been evidenced by senior players Phil Vickery and Martyn Williams, who have outlined that personal egos are secondary to the team ethic of the Lions.

O’ Connell and McGeechan are, in my terms, exogenous leaders for many members of the squad. However, their records in terms of trophies won, and previous Lions experience makes them solid leaders, on and off the field.

Woodward’s downfall
I think Clive Woodward’s downfall was due to the large number of players included in the 2005 squad, which, combined with his extensive backroom staff list (admittedly based on the success of the policy of having so many backroom staff in the England set-up), gives the impression that creating a united Lions players and management team was always likely to be difficult.

Ian McGeechan has recently said this to be imperative for a successful tour . Furthermore, Jonny Wilkinson said in his book that people on the 2005 tour roomed separately, a tactic reportedly not being repeated this time. Combined with a smaller squad size, this should help to recreate the Lions’ cultures of 1997 and 2001, which are the only tours I know much about.

I am generally very happy with the squad selection. Most players have been chosen according to form, and there are also a wide variety of ages and national experience (notably Leigh Halfpenny and Keith Earls). This implies experience and past honours are not necessarily of huge importance, which creates that all important culture of equality in terms of being able to nail down a test spot (Graeme Rowntree has come out and said all 15 places are up for grabs), which should be great for overall team ethos and unity.


This post was prepared by Scott Williams a final year Undergraduate student at MBS, who is studying for a BSc (Hons) in International Management and who is also an avid follower and ex-player of Rugby Union.

The Image of Harmony seemed an appropriate one. You can also down load it as a screen save


Monty is appointed Ryder Cup captain: A curious king-making process

January 30, 2009


Colin Montgomerie is appointed Europe’s Ryder Cup captain to wide acclaim from players and pundits alike. By the manner of his appointment reveals a curious king-making process

The right man, it seems. The right stuff. A great competitor. The best player never to win a golf major, and Europe’s top ranking player for nearly a decade. And he also lifts his game for Ryder Cup competitions. So it seems these facts make him the ideal captain for the Ryder Cup. Or, maybe, the best captain that the selection process could come up with.

Colin Montgomerie is as well-known a public figure as almost any in the sporting world. His exposure to the general public has been huge through televised records of countless tournaments and interviews. A turbulent private life has brought further and unwelcome publicity. A few years ago, a breech of rules blew up into a Jakartagate incident for which he was censored heavily. Even this week there is a little matter of an appeal to reverse a driving offence conviction [30th Jan 2009].

Over a period of years he has presented himself as a person of towering rages, at caddies, press, and in reports of alleged violence in his private life). The symptoms are not unknown in leaders in all walks of life. They may well be part of the dark side of the charismatic personality documented by such leadership experts as de Vries, Kellerman, and Kotter. Our correspondent Jeff Schubert has a lot to say on boardroom and political dictators, and of the effect they have on their close associates.

A powerful need to achieve in a leader is not infrequently associated with aggression, ideally channelled into performance. It is tolerated in the successful leader, but it is also then cited subsequently by those who were silently compliant if the leader loses the battle to retain the top job.

In some cases, the selection trade-off is clear but the risk is judged to be worth taking. This may be because of conditions of crisis, or the absence of one ‘safe’ candidate above others.

In this case, details reported of the decision-making have been reported the general public. The process is an interesting one, and worth considering by students of leadership and ‘king-making’. We know that there is considerable amount of consensus-seeking among the leading European Tour players. We know that a group of king-makers including representatives from the players arrives at a decision over a series of meetings. The process is very thorough. We know that Monty was an influential member of the selection group, and that for the most part was not considered as the (traditionally non-playing) captain. He had made it clear that although declining from his peak he intended to fight for his place as a player in the forthcoming Ryder Cup, in Wales.

Another candidate, Olazabal, was a far greater favourite, with Ian Woosnam as second favourite, someone who would have the additional attraction of added support from Welsh audiences at the Celtic Manor course. The Times on line has a good background to the tortuous reasoning around the decision which went against the Spaniard.

Montgomerie himself suggested that in these discussions, that ‘it became clear that my time had come’ [my recollection of his words in several interviews in the days after his appointment ]. Other reports suggested that another player had put Monty’s name forward. That sounded as if the selection had become mired-down, and that the various claims for the (one-off) appointment had managed to neutralise one another, and weaken the prospects of the front-runners.

In this version (not discouraged by Monty subsequently), onee his name was suggested, it made sense, to the selectors. It had a similar effect on Montgomerie. Scales dropped from his eyes (so to speak). A moment of insight.

And so it was that a decision was reached. After a few weeks and in a subsequent meeting, the appointment was confirmed publically.

The appointment is greeted with considerable enthusiasm by the press (and not just the report in The Scotsman). I expected a few high-profile dissenting voices in the press. It was also greeted with enthusiasm by the players. Not so unexpected, as the captain gets to chose two players for the team, (the others appointed by their places on the European Tour order of merit. That fact, and Monty’s expressed view that he would like to pick all sixteen, makes it a bit more difficult to find players willing to offer churlish remarks about the newly appointed captain.

Colin Montgomerie has managed to present himself as a person who can show a loss of self-control under stress. This may be a price worth paying. Players explain why they need someone vastly experienced in winning as a player in the Ryder Cup. After the last match they qualified this in remarkably ageist terms to exclude otherwise outstanding candidates It seems they would be less overawed by a contemporary figures with whom they has played, than say a Nick Faldo who was a great player froman earlier generation. Ah, that’s OK then. Over fifties need not apply.

I’m not convinced by the rationale of this (or is it a rationalization?). That is not to say that the result may be alright. In which case everyone will feel comfortable about preserving not just the selection process, but these assumptions that accompany it. And if Monty’s team lose, there will be plenty of denying that the captaincy emerged within a rather curious king-making process.


The king-making was also marred by leaks which produced betting irregularities.


Conversations with a city supporter 24 hours before takeover

September 2, 2008

You may remember Eric the blue from an earlier post. He was my sole window into the happenings at Manchester City Football Club. This year, by the way, he will be joined by Dominic who will offer another seasoned ticket-holder’s views.

It so happened that I bumped into Eric on Sunday, when all was relatively calm in the world of Manchester City. If you count as calm the situation of a club having an owner Thaksin Shinawatrafacing rather nasty criminal charges in Thailand.

“I think he’s in for the long term” I offered. Not meaning a prison sentence. I thought maybe Thaksin would prefer Manchester to non-optional accomodation at the pleasure of the Thai military.

“Maybe” said Eric, sounding less than convinced.

“Hughes has bought some good players” I added.

“Maybe”, said Eric, still less than enthusiastic.

“It could be worse. It’s worse for Gordon Brown, and the mayor of New Orleans”. (Hurricane Gustav was about to reach the gulf, and mayor Nagin had ordered a full evacuation of New Orleans).

I could have mentioned that it was getting worse for Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of Thailand as well.

Can’t remember if Eric thought it was maybe better to be Mark Hughes or Mayor Ray Nagin

A new day dawns

A new day dawns. Sean Wright-Philips had returned to City from Chelsea, and had a happy debut scoring two goals at Sunderland
Overnight, the main football stories were around two big signings that were still hanging in the balance. Tottenham were holding out for last minute concessions from Manchester United over the sale of Dimitar Berbatov. Likewise Real Madrid over Robinho’s move to Chelsea. In organizational terms these were big deals by big players. The transfer window sets up conditions for last-minute barrow-boy stuff. The media plays its part in creating and distributing information in various lucrative ways. The information is utterly dubious for the most part.

Oh, Happy Day

Twenty fours later and Man city’s sporting destiny was turned upside-down. A well-concealed deal had been brokered. Thaksin had flogged the club (barring a little matter of due diligence) to Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) which would see the seriously wealthy Arab company taking a majority stake in the club.

Thaksin has cut a deal to become honorary chairman of the club and retain a minority shareholding. Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim of ADUG intends to turn City into a top-four Premiership club within three seasons.

We must be dreaming

The dream lives on. Hardly had the news of the takeover been announced, when Chelsea confirm they were close to signing the unsettled Robinho from Real Madrid.

Could it get better?

Yes it could. Hours later the news that Tottenham had been approached by City and accepted a deal for Berbatov. First wealth beyond reason. Then some of it immediately put to wondrous use, and screwing-up United’s plans as bonus.

The hoardings outside newsagents in Manchester read City: We are the richest club in the world

Dreams end at midnight

This one almost did. 1am Greenwich Mean Time to be precise, the deadline ending the summer transfer window. But despite the earlier news, what was this? Berbatov in defiance of the deal claimed by City and Tottenham was undergoing a medical at Old Trafford. With minutes to spare, news reports confirmed he had signed for …United.

The Dream Lives on

But cometh the dawn and the dream mostly lives on. The news Hoardings still say City is the richest club in the world. And Robinho was coming. For a British league transfer record fee of over £34 million.

Leadership lessons

Might the delaying tactics of Tottenham (towards Manchester United) and Real Madrid (towards Chelsea) be because both clubs were aware of the takeover plans at Manchester City?

Give me time to think. I need a new deadline on this one …

Selectors agree with Boycott and appoint Pietersen England captain.

June 28, 2008

When the England Cricket Selectors were considering a one-day captain to replace Michael Vaughan, pundit Geoffrey Boycott tipped Kevin Pietersen. Eventually, the selectors saw it Boycott’s way

At the time of Geoffrey’s recommendation, a Leaders we deserve post was unkind about Boycott’s choice. Boycott’s judgment, and even his motivation for backing Pietersen were disparaged.

Boycott was a brilliant opening bat, and now is a trenchant and insightful commentator. He was also arguably the worse cricket captain of England in modern times. What can we make of his judgement in this case?

The England selectors did not see it Boycott’s way. Most TMC pundits agreed. They all went for Paul Collingwood.

In the original post, there was a pinch of Jungian psychology, and the dour Boycott was accused of backing his shadow-self, the flamboyant Pietersen. Collingwood was seen as the safe pair of hands.

Collingwood has had a rather unsuccessful captaincy. His stock declined further this week after accusations of playing against the spirit of cricket. This coincided with a ban for failing to achieve the overs rate, both charges arising at a critical stage of the one day series against New Zealand.

The Selectors turn to Pietersen

Kevin Pietersen promised to captain England according to his “gut instincts” in the final one-dayer against New Zealand at Lord’s
Pietersen, who will deputize for the banned Paul Collingwood, admitted he had “zilch” experience of the role
“I think I’ll be a similar captain to the kind of person I am – I’ll be calm, pretty chilled and let my gut instincts and feelings guide me.”

It’s a very old leadership question. Do the circumstances favour flair over reliability? For Boycott it was flair. We now have a chance to see whether that view will be justified.

The Sacking of Avram Grant

May 28, 2008

The sacking of Avram Grant as coach of Chelsea Football Club was dramatic but unsurprising

Alas poor Avram.

Alas poor Avram. I knew him, but not too well.
He seemed a decent sort of bloke

Honest. Generous in defeat.
Not without ability.
Could command loyalty among his men.

Now he is gone.

The dreamer wakes.
Swots at a circling midge.
Goes back to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream.

Or, as the BBC described the sacking

It is a sign of the cut-throat nature of the modern game that a decent, dignified man is sacked three days after missing out on club football’s biggest honour by the width of a post and on the Premier League title on the last day of the season.

Martin Johnson: Bigger, Stronger, Braver, Better?

April 17, 2008

The much-rumoured appointment duly occurred. Martin Johnson replaces Brian Ashton as England Rugby Coach. But is his unrivalled credentials as winning captain on the field adequate for the wider leadership role he now assumes?

The issue has been simplified to a mantra. Martin Johnson was England’s most successful Rugby captain of modern times. This seems enough for some commentators who argue that England Rugby needs a winner like Johnson to rescue it from under-achievement.

Two inter-related issues. The selection process has involved a group of administrators which as had its fair share of criticisms for lack of grip of essentials of sporting management and leadership. The most famous criticism by former Captain Will Carling likened them to a bunch of boring old farts.

The second issue faced was what to do about current head coach Brian Ashton.

On the eve of the World Cup final last June [2007] I shared the wider doubts among rugby fans about Ashton’s future as England coach.

England Rugby, The World Cup and Brian Ashton

Less than a month ago, Mr Ashton was seen as credible a leader as Sir Menzies Campbell [who had resigned before he could be fired by the Lib Dems] The performances of Ashton’s teams had been bitterly criticized. Now, on the eve of the 2007 final, he now stands one game short of receiving the kind of accolades showered on his predecessor Clive Woodward after his team became World Champions, four years ago. Outside of England, the suspicion is that England are serious underdogs to a South African team that beat them comprehensively in the run up to the finals. This is not a time for logic. How far is Paris from Agincourt?

Which was a bit high-falutin’, but the drift was right. England had turned around a dreadful run of results under Brian Ashton. As ultimate success against South Africa was unlikely, the case for firing Ashton was a strong one. Rumours that the turnaround came from player power subsequently added to the ‘Sack Ashton’ campaign. This week’s sacking has been generally acknowledged as bungled, but not necessarily a bad decision.

Martin Johnson, Superhero

As a one report put it

Martin Johnson has been appointed England team manager from 1 July to the end of 2011 in a shake-up that sees Brian Ashton removed as head coach. The World Cup-winning captain, 38, will have full control of team selection and the appointment of the coaching team.
Johnson will report to [Rob] Andrew, but have “full managerial control” of the England team.

He remains a sort of Chief Operating Officer to CEO Rob Andrews. (I translate the roles into Business Speak).


That an under-performing England team have been crying out for leadership — and that Martin Johnson is the ideal man to provide it — ought to be beyond question, even if his detractors decry his lack of coaching experience.

Or according to The Telegraph

Is Martin Johnson the right man?
Yes, he is. We all know he’s straight-talking and hard-nosed. But his greatest qualities are his intelligence, his perception and his sensitivity. A growl and a stare don’t frighten anyone these days. Not on a rugby field, nor off it. Johnson has integrity, shrewdness and decisiveness.
Does it matter that Johnson hasn’t managed before?
No. If you’re good enough, you can learn on the job.

Discussion wages around whether the exceptional on-field performances are an adequate rationale for making Johnson such a nailed-on candiate for the wider managerial role.

Beyond LCD

These are not accounts from Lowest Common Denominator media sources. But the arguments are little better than LCD opinions, taking us no further than pub talk. They illustrate how difficult it is to construct analysis in a theory-free zone.

Over the last decades, studies of leaders have become regarded as less fruitful than studies of leadership processes (‘Situated leadership’ as one of my colleagues calls it).

We have a long way to go, even in this little corner of social science. But there are a few emerging principles which may be worth introducing in this specific case.

Leadership involves several inter-related components. Building a great organization or a Rugby team involves a distribution of leadership responsibilities. The responsibilities are shared among a ‘top echelon’ of individuals including Martin Johnson, but also including Rob Andrews, and key figures from within the governance system so graphically described by Will Carling.

From there, we can better see the roles and responsibilities for those involved, and their inter-relationships.

This process of concept-building permits us to test assumptions and beliefs (formally propositions and hypotheses). We can introduce evidence from other cases.

To make such analysis requires a lot of hard thinking, creativity and judgement. For example, can we draw on examples of leaders in other sports, or even in business or politics to inform our new model of leadership of England’s rugby team?

Theorizing Martin Johnson

What’s the point of theorizing Martin Johnson? Partly because we can adjust our expectations about what difference he might make in his new leadership role, and how.

It is almost certainly reveal uncertainties more than specific predictions regarding his success or failure. Less enthralling than the dreams and visions in the headlines at present, but maybe more grounded in reasoned evidence.

England 19: Ospreylia 26

February 3, 2008

The sport headlines declared that a club team representing Wales had won a famous Rugby Union victory against an England team that had been world champions, and more recently runners-up, in the last two world championships. What happened? How did it come about? And are there any lessons to be learned about leadership, team spirit, and that mysterious sporting phenomenon of momentum?

Saturday February 2nd 2008.

The Six Nations Rugby tournament kicked off with England home against Wales. Even in Wales, the faithful prepared themselves for the worse. The days when Wales had been a major international force at Rugby were retreating into mythology. In the intervening period (to make things worse) England rugby had advanced until even the most grudging Welsh supporter acknowledged a gulf in quality and strength in depth. Wales had not won at Twickenham for two decades.

A few months ago, Wales and England both began the Rugby World Cup. Wales were eliminated in the first stage. And England improved and improved. Wales retreated to lick their wounds, and to ditch the hapless coaching team. They also had in mind appointing much-rated coach Warren Gatland from New Zealand.

So hasty were they to make a fresh start, that the Welsh Rugby Union accepted that their preferred candidate would be unable to start work with the team until the 2008 competitive season was nearly underway.

Gatland wanted to bring with him an English defensive coach. Unheard of. But his pick was Shaun Edwards another top class coach who had shared success with Gatland in the past. Ironically, Edwards would have liked a post within the England set-up, but had not been able to agree terms.

Making the best of a bad job

So the likely lads arrived in town too late to make a difference to a dispirited Welsh squad. Then, an ingenious and daring selection decision. Gatland had no time to weigh up strengths and weaknesses of every player in every club throughout the land. But one Welsh premier team, the Ospreys, had been performing well (albeit hardly spectacularly) at international and regional levels.

The Welsh squad was announced, and the astonishing news was that there would be 13 of the starting 15 players from that one club team. The shock can be seen against the fact that the previous record was for 10 players (from the once dominant Cardiff club, some sixty years earlier). England, with more clubs to draw from, had managed seven players on a few occasions.

‘Don’t expect miracles’

Whatever Gatland told the players, he went out of his way to warn the Welsh Nation not to expect miracles. Good move, although unsurprising.

What happened next?

By general agreement, the game began as everyone expected. The mighty English outscored and overpowered the less muscular Welsh team. At half-time, Wales were clearly hanging on, close to collapse into humiliation. The 16-6 score concealed several opportunities lost by England to add to their score.

Then a miracle?

Maybe. What was observed was a rather sudden shift from England ‘almost’ administering a knock-out, to a team showing signs of poor tactical decisions, poor execution, and an evident drop in energy. Major figures had been injured in the frenzied first half, but the replacements seemed more than adequate to continue the demolition.

Wales cut out the elementary errors that had compounded their problems in the first half.

England continued to rely on power, when they were running on empty. And ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got’. But power had stopped working. And there didn’t seem to be a plan B.

Wales scrabbled back some of the lead to 19-12. A nice move by Hook from half-back created a try to draw the score. More flustered play, by (of all people Jonny Wilkinson) and a second try in short order.

It’s all over

Commentators were now saying that England had lost all momentum. That mysterious force. They were doomed. I was not particularly convinced. But so it came about. The out-muscled Welsh forwards proceeded to out-muscle the former bullies.

Miracles and momentum

Let’s get the sporting clichés out of the way first. The Welsh/Ospreys team went in at half-time like little boys lost, and came out roaring and spitting. What a great team-talk that must have been by Gatland and Edwards. Except, we don’t know. When interviewed, the Welsh players either couldn’t remember, or were not saying. It’s a team effort, they repeated, as if brainwashed. It’s all the players and all the coaching squad together.

But the players on the field ‘just knew’ that England were wilting, just like the commentators knew.

And the adoring Welsh fans are well on the way to hailing an unusual pair of incomers as Great Redeemers to guide them with a powerful hand.

It left England’s coach Brian Ashton bemused. We need some time to reflect on it, he said.

And so do I.

Post Mortem

After the match Gatland gave a revealing interview to the BBC. He again attempted to lower expectations, and talked of the decision to select so many players from one club.

“I know from experience with club sides it is going to take 12 months, two years to turn this side into a good side… Saturday was a starting point but to be a good side we have got a hell of a lot of improving to do don’t expect miracles in a few weeks.

I am not saying that is going to be the case for next week, but I could have easily have taken a bit of pressure off myself by picking two or three others [non Ospreys]. But I believed that was the right decision for that game……The hard decision was picking as many as we did, and having the composure to do it knowing that people would comment on it.”

Fallback strategies make for good governance. Or do they?

January 23, 2008

_42974117_stormtroopers_66pic.jpgThere have been several examples of fallback thinking in our UK leadership stories recently, including cases at The Royal Mail, The Treasury, and most recently at Liverpool Football club. We examine why developing a fallback strategy may be a matter of creative leadership

Every Military leader learns of the benefits of a fallback strategy. Lao Tse wrote of the merits of providing a fallback strategy for a defeated enemy, a golden bridge permitting an enemy to retreat thus avoiding the possible lose-lose outcomes of follow-up actions.

Business School cases are taught with a vocabulary of risk management, which is way of elevating fallback thinking to a management philosophy.

Engineers are familiar with the lugubrious message which passes for Murphy’s law, or Sod’s law (‘what might go wrong will go wrong’; ‘toast always falls with the buttered-side down and hitting the carpet’). Awareness helps them bear in mind what might be also called the worse case scenario.

So fallback thinking is always a good thing?

I am very much in favour of fallback thinking, but would like to explore its consequences a little more deeply.

Let’s agree that leaders benefit from facing up to unpleasant possibilities. It was the failure to face such realities that prompted Bob Woodward to label his work on the Bush Administration as an examination of a State of Denial. That example indicates the well-known human tendency to escapism, which can have serious consequences for leaders of all kinds. The Tavistock School and Clinic developed a whole social scientific model on such behaviours, which are related to the more popular concept Groupthink.

Then what’s the problem?

Real-life examples show that theory often fails to anticipate all the problems facing leaders in action. The most recent example is the case at Liverpool Football club and its American Owners.

Tony Barrett of the Liverpool Echo [Jan 14th 2008] broke the story.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett held a secret meeting with Jurgen Klinsmann to line him up as the next manager of Liverpool FC. Hicks today insisted the talks would not have resulted in the immediate dismissal of Rafael Benitez and that Klinsmann was only “an insurance policy.”
He told the [LIVERPOOL] ECHO: “We attempted to negotiate an option, as an insurance policy, to have him become manager if Rafa left for Real Madrid or other clubs that were rumoured in the UK press … Or in case our communication spiralled out of control for some reason.”

Sensible? I leave readers to decide. There was general consensus elsewhere by football commentators that the action had made things worse, and had undermined the position of the incumbent manager.

Then there’s the case of The Post Office, facing enormous challenges of change, and headed by a dynamic Chairman. Last year he was linked with stories of transferring his attentions to the possibility of becoming the new Chairman at Sainsburys. The government (at the time of Tony Blair’s premiership) drew up a fallback plan.

Robert Peston reported from unnamed sources that

The Government has appointed head hunters to find a new chairman. The search for a deputy chairman is regarded by some in government as insurance in case Mr Leighton decides to quit early. He is frustrated by ministers’ reluctance to transfer 20% of the business to Royal Mail staff.
“Allan Leighton is always threatening to resign and one day it might just happen” said a government source.

Insurance again.

I noted at the time

Suppose this is a game of three dimensional chess? Allen Leighton is leading the Government forces in a battle to implement its wishes. Those nasty forces resisting his attacks are led by the Union leaders. Leighton wants more help from the Government. He becomes powerful enough to be dangerous. What if he threatens to resign at the most telling moment to devote more time to other business interests? He has been associated with stories of his interest in acquiring Sainsbury’s for several years (and it seems the stories are coming to the boil again this month) … This is why it’s three dimensional chess.

Then there’s another recent story, concerning The Treasury’s fall back strategy of nationalizing Northern Rock. I argued that it was another example of a game of political chess.

… Mr Darling does not want to nationalize Northern Rock. Neither do the shareholders. But if The Chancellor can convince enough shareholders that he might be forced into a nationalization by their further opposition, it may help avoid the outcome none of the main players really wants.

Creative leadership issues

These recent cases suggest that leadership stories can be read and deconstructed in terms of the actions of those at the heart of the story to achieve goals, which might include actions to block the goals of others. In the vocabulary of creative leadership
the complex strategic ‘map’ can be explored as a series of desired actions or how to do’ statements. This will vary among stakeholders.

If we are examining the possible actions for the principals or owners, (be it Liverpool Football club or The Post Office) possible goals (How to ..) might be

‘How to protect my interests, if the leader quits’
Or ‘How to develop ‘insurance’ if the leader’ quits
Or ‘How to keep the leader in place’
Or ‘How to increase chances of a smooth leadership transition’
Or ‘How to have a back-up position’
Or ‘How to show [ ] that we are not bluffing.

The creative leader (according to this kind of approach) ‘searches widely and chooses wisely’. Searching widely avoids the trap of being locked into preconceptions. Choosing wisely commits to less obvious ideas and actions discovered in the search process.

Fabio Capello gets a make-over

December 17, 2007


Fabio Capello, The New Manager for England’s football team, has been appointed to one of toughest of leadership posts in sport. The mechanics of myth-making are illustrated in the first episodes of what will be a long-running drama

Within days of Fabio Capello’s appointment as England football manager, the myth-making machines were into full-scale production mode. Strictly speaking, they were mostly engaged in reworking the ideas from an earlier text.

The Build-up to Fabio’s appointment

The build-up to his appointment was itself conducted with considerable intensity, albeit with a few too many overtones of awaiting the puff of white smoke from the Vatican conclave which would announce the appointment of a new Pope.

We learned a lot about his unrivalled success as coach in the largest clubs in the world.

We learned of the credentials of his impressive back-room team he would bring with him

We could even see the poke-in goal administered by a youthful Capello against England at Wembley in 1973.

The established story

These initial accounts provided a consistent picture of the new manager:

Capello has guided teams to nine league championships in 16 years as a coach, although Juventus were stripped of the 2005 and 2006 titles because of the club’s involvement in a match-fixing scandal …he was the mastermind behind one of the greatest ever club performances when his AC Milan team trounced Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 Champions League final, but he will also arrive in England with a reputation as a fierce disciplinarian …Capello is not in football to make friends. He is interested only in success …Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon likened him to a dictator while he played under him at Juventus

The media, and fans appear mostly very positive, although with a minority vehemently holding to the view that ‘The England Coach needs to be English’.

The BBC as viewspaper?

A somewhat disturbing illustration of how news is fabricated can be found in the BBC treatment of the appointment. In the absence of a direct interview (for the moment), producing a news story requires a certain amount of creative effort. (Just why the story is needed so urgently seems to me a more complicated matter.)

Attempts to win an exclusive interview had stopped short at the gates of Capello’s Milanese villa. With some resourcefulness, the BBC finds one of their own expert commentators Marcel Desailly, and proceed to interview him (Sunday December)

I listened to the interview on the morning Sportsview programme. Desailly has a rapid-fire delivery, and delivers his observations with energy and emotion in fluent English. He makes it clear that he has enormous respect for Capello’s virtues as a coach.

This is hardly news. There follows that special kind of nurturing to ensure that story takes the required shape. In courtroom dramas, such actons are followed by the objection that counsel is leading the witness.

Desailly is pressed to work a little harder.. Doesn’t Capello have any weaknesses? Desailly obligingly tries to be of assistance. Maybe the new coach is not a good listener.

Hm, that’s not much of a story either, I thought. I wondered if ‘not listening’ meant not receiving the message, or not taking the views of others into account.

I was very shortly more than a bit surprised at the speed with which the replication process was taking place. The leading sports item in the next BBC news bulletin, a few minutes after the interview, was the self-same ‘story’, presented as a kind of mini-exclusive: Capello will have trouble communicating. He is a bad listener.

This was later was incorporated into the BBC webpage account of Capello’s appointment.

Former France defender Marcel Desailly, who played under Capello during both of the Italian’s spells in charge of AC Milan, believes language difficulties might not be the 61-year-old’s only barrier in the England set-up. “You can’t really communicate with him,” Desailly told Sportsweek. “When you are talking about tactics or other players he doesn’t really listen but he’s a wonderful man and loves to travel and discover new countries …”He’s not very open about football, but most of the time his ideas are the correct ones.”

This is not news

I have several problems with the ‘story’. It is not news. The widely-received story of Capello is that he does not suffer stupidity, including stupid questions from the press. He has been known to ignore such questions (‘not listen’?). He may even walk out, ending such sessions prematurely.

Another problem I have with the story is that the sense placed on Desailly’s comments is different when taken out of context, as it has been.

My third problem is that the story has been fabricated rather obviously, with the BBC interviewing one of its own, (that’s OK) and then presented the results in a dodgy way and claiming them as an exclusive. (not OK). That’s how news stories are fabricated and replicated.

The process followed the pattern at the BBC in the stories involving Robert Peston and Northern Rock, which we reported on in an earlier post.

BBC financial expert Robert Peston has an inside track into City chatter. He reports the chatter. Usually with insight and authority. Then the BBC takes its own exclusive story, from its own employee, and makes another story out of it. In the role as celebrity, Peston is now presented as making news rather than reporting on it.

This sounds to me rather like The Independent’s stance as ‘a viewspaper not a newspaper’. Maybe that’s what the BBC is also in danger of becoming.

Ramos is situational leader of the month

December 1, 2007

Update [February, 2008]

On Sunday February 24th 2008, Tottenham Hotspur won the Carling Cup Final at Wembley against a much-fancied Chelsea team. Juande Ramos received plaudits for the transformation achieved at Tottenham since his arrival earlier in the season.

Original Post:

Does a sporting leader make a difference? Sometimes. At a micro-level a coach can change the course of the game by a substitution which sets up a different pattern of play. An illustration of a positive effect can be found in the actions of new coach Juande Ramos, during the game between Tottenham Hotspur and Aalborg in the Uefa cup.

The Tottenham Aalborg match took place on Thursday 29th November, 2007. According to the BBC,

A storming second half from Tottenham overwhelmed Aalborg as Spurs put themselves on the brink of qualifying for the next stage of the Uefa Cup. Thomas Enevoldsen’s 22-yard strike put the visitors ahead before Kasper Risgard bundled in from close range. But a tactical reshuffle by Spurs boss Juande Ramos saw Dimitar Berbatov poke home and Steed Malbranque power in an angled far-post shot to level. Darren Bent grabbed the winner when he tapped in a cross from Aaron Lennon.

It was Ramos’ switch of formation and personnel, as well as his half-time team talk, which reinvigorated the hosts after they had been given an early shock as Aalborg went ahead with just two minutes gone.

The praise for the coach’s tactical changes was widespread in the post-match accounts. However, Ramos also pinpointed what his tactics had been unable to do, namely set up a team with fewer defensive frailties. He acknowledged as much in his post-match conference

“We are making mistakes that could be costly …The most important thing in the team is balance – and we are imbalanced. We are conceding too many opportunities and we have to find a solution to this, because we are not going to score three goals in every game. We have to stop the defence leaking goals. “Unfortunately a lot of the injured players we have at the moment are in the same area of the team. We have King, Gardner, Rocha out”.

In microcosm, then, a coach made a difference to the performance of the team by a tactical decision that was considered imaginative and surprising. I’d say it was a little act of creativity. It is a matter of discussion to assess what proportion of top-level coaches react as impressively, under similar circumstances.

Situational leadership

But should we also note that to make a difference, the team had to be playing less successfully before the change? In which case, the success is balanced by an earlier failure for which the coach also has some responsibility. Closer examination of the play may indicate whether the players had just failed to follow the coach’s plan. In which case, advocates of the theory of situational leadership would put it down to some mismatch between leadership and player actions and competences.

Leadership issues

The simplicity of the example makes it a useful one for study. In what ways might we borrow from the theory of situational management to help other coaches achieve better results? The theory suggests that the level of commitment and competence may vary, and the leader has to modify interventions accordingly. Tottenham’s second string defenders are not displaying the competence expected of Premier League professionals; Ramos finds a creative way of overcoming it, with the old adage that attack is the best form of defence. But the adage is not applied in an automatic way, but under specific circumstances. Ramos also intends to work at more direct ways of protecting his team from defensive errors.

Tentative conclusion

The theory of situational leadership remains controversial as research results appear to be at best inconclusive with respect to results achieved in the predicted directions applying measures of leadership (and follower) styles. Perhaps the football field will be a promising arena to study the theory, and maybe apply it in practice.


There is a wider issue that should be mentioned. The arrival of Juande Ramos, and departure of Martin Jols is a far more complicated story to untangle. It would be simplistic to suggest that the Board was correct in replacing a leader who had achieved rather unexpected success over five years at the club. That story requires a far more detailed study over a much longer time-scale than the ninety minutes of a football match.


Image from the wonderful land of New Zealand.