Tuesday, 10 January 2012

What difference does leadership make?

Being a long suffering Queens Park Rangers (QPR) fan, I have been pondering the notion of leadership in the light of the recent dismissal of Neil Warnock, our erstwhile manager who has just been sacked following a run of poor form.
Neil Warnock

For those interested enough to carry on reading considering this is a football related post - albeit an extended analogy - QPR were promoted to the Premiership after 15 years in the 'wilderness' of lower leagues (my sons have lived almost their whole lives depressed at our non-premiership status - not easy). Neil Warnock was not a manager any of us liked much when he was managing opposing teams, but when he became one of us, and miracle of miracles took us up to the promised land of the Premiership, our views changed - he gave us back pride in our club - and importantly he was a leader who made us win.
A poor run of form, the usual combination of bad luck, averagely talented players and elevated expectations left us one place above the dreaded relegation zone and a transfer window open and ready for new players that would 'definitely keep us up'. Our recently arrived owner took the tough decision to give another manager the chance to spend the transfer budget and hopefully guide us into the safer waters of mid table obscurity.

So what has this all to do with leadership you ask?

Well it seems to me, like any leader, a football manager does two key things - manages his team of players, and plans the tactics for how they play each game. I'm sure there are other things he (and in football it is invariably a him) has to do, but those multifarious other activities - press interviews, community outreach, the odd appearance on A Question of Sport -   probably mostly get in the way of the two key things. A successful leader is wise to focus on the two key things as if his life depends on it. Win and you keep your job, keep your team up, and maybe win a cup or two.

Neil was known to be pretty good at the motivation thing - the 'man management'. A combination of team builder, bully, surrogate dad, stern headmaster, marriage guidance counsellor, financial advisor, agony uncle. The art is to get your players all up at the same time like a plate spinner - and keep them spinning for 90 minutes, and do it again 7 days later for a whole season.

Apparently it was the tactics thing, that Neil was thought to be not so hot at. That is about how you set out your team - the formation, the style of play, the combination and deployment of the skills and attributes of your players. There are anecdotes aplenty, but suffice to say in the cauldron of a 90 minute game, he who has the best game plan that he can get his players to stick with will win more games than he loses. Now I don't think Neil was tactically naive or unaware - but football at the highest level is a bit like chess, sheer physical power and fitness advantage is mostly cancelled out. Goals and wins are often the result of tiny tactical advantages and the odd bit of luck and moments of magical skill.
Brian Clough

Famously Brian Clough - 'the best manager England never had' - didn't really do tactics either, he often didn't even watch his players train - he left that to his tactical wizard Peter Taylor. Brian was the arch motivator - he made his players believe they could win, Peter Taylor identified the players the team needed and crafted the tactics. Brian made his players believe they had a very simple thing to do - 'this is your job, stick to it', and then the tactics of Peter Taylor blended each players 'singularity' into a perfect football machine - and Brian and Peter won more cups with average players than probably anyone else.

The thing is - and this is my point - having both the skills of leadership - the man management and the tactics is very difficult and very rare - it's rare in football, and it's rare in business.

Which is more important? It seems to me developing skills in man management is reasonably well understood, it doesn't mean any prospective leader will automatically be good at them, and there is certainly no 'one way' of doing it  - Steve Jobs was entirely different in style to say Richard Branson - but there are books and classes and seminars aplenty. Strategic skills are a bit more of a black art, maybe even innate. You can read up on it, but it is a combination of logical and lateral thinking, sound reasoning and creative leap. 

A really good leader is probably strong in either man management or strategic skill, a great leader has both - oh and a bit of luck. A really good leader will recognise where he or she comes up a bit short, and get help to fill in the gaps. With any luck this will turn a good leader into a great one (and by the way, we at Brand Guardians specialise in the sound reasoning and creative leap bit).

And it's always worth remembering what Samuel Goldwyn famously said - 'the harder I work the luckier I get'.