The role of leaders is overrated in sport as in business

The corporate sector has ploughed a lot of money into finding the secrets of effective leadership

 Alex Ferguson and David Moyes: Ferguson’s “hairdryer treatment” became the stuff of legend, whereas Moyes’s interest in management theory was seen by some as a sign of weakness rather than evidence of an inquiring mind. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

Alex Ferguson and David Moyes: Ferguson’s “hairdryer treatment” became the stuff of legend, whereas Moyes’s interest in management theory was seen by some as a sign of weakness rather than evidence of an inquiring mind. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA


The most poignant detail in the fall of David Moyes concerned his reading matter on the flight back home from his team’s Champions League defeat against Olympiacos in February: the now ex-Manchester United manager was seen reading Good to Great , the mega-selling leadership book by the American business writer Jim Collins.

“We are the Premier League champions,” said one of Moyes’s players on that flight later. “Why on earth did our manager need to read a book to learn how to manage us?”

The Good to Great anecdote places 50-year-old Moyes as the young pretender desperately looking for answers in an environment that is deeply suspicious of academia. When filtered through the lens of sports reporting, reading Jim Collins is presented as a sign of weakness rather than the evidence of an inquiring mind.

The quote from the football insider is perfect: he knows what he knows and won’t have any truck with high-falutin’ new ideas, particularly if they come in book form.

After a dramatic exit from Old Trafford this week, David Moyes’s fate is to become a metaphor for management failure. The Scot’s craggy, careworn features are at this moment being cut and pasted in to the lecture notes of every visiting professor on the MBA circuit.

Whereas it was once believed that leaders were “born not made”, this has given way to a widespread assumption that leadership is something that can be learned and therefore taught.

Since the 1970s an industry has grown up to meet that demand, one that is valued at $50 billion by Forbes. There are nearly 400 accredited business schools in America alone and many more around the world, teaching a curriculum driven by thousands of leadership experts who make a very decent living writing, speaking and teaching the fundamentals of this relatively new topic.

Leadership institutes
The subject is of intense interest to the government, military and corporate sectors which have ploughed large sums of money into developing their own centres of excellence, running their own courses, seminars, workshops and putting their company names to leadership institutes and think tanks.

All this activity is directed at finding answers to some big questions about why we do what we do. What do we get from going to work, other than money? What separates high achievers from the rest? What drives exceptional performance? How should corporations treat their people, how can they unleash their potential and what is the role of money in motivating teams?

Sport’s contribution to these debates has been delivered by a new generation of coaches, managers and performance directors.

These are the sporting equivalent of the superstar CEOs. Like those of Steve Jobs, Jack Welch and Richard Branson, the profile of European football managers such as José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson transcends that of their followers. Strategy is the buzz word, the core of the knowledge economy. Players? They are merely very highly paid artisans, doers rather than thinkers.

The experience of Ferguson and Moyes mirrors that of politicians and corporate bosses, who routinely get too much credit and too much blame for events that are beyond their control. Social scientists call this fundamental attribution error. It is defined as the bias that causes us to attribute another person’s performance or behaviour to their character or abilities and to underweight the role of random or situational factors.

Deep-rooted bias
A variant of fundamental attribution error is leadership attribution bias. In this case, people tend to overweight the effect that a leader has on different outcomes. This bias runs through business, politics, religion and sport, whether we are electing presidents and prime ministers, choosing our spiritual leaders or sacking football managers.

For example, in oil states of America, voters tend to reward governors with re-election when the global oil price is high and vote them out when it falls. This is how history is written. Ronald Reagan was the American president who “won the cold war”. During Alan Greenspan’s tenure as head of the US Federal Reserve he exerted “an iron-like grip on the US economy”, while Clinton “oversaw consecutive budget surpluses”. Tony Blair was the British prime minister who “ended The Troubles in Northern Ireland”.

We have an obsession with leadership, wrote Prof Henry Mintzberg, one of the foremost management thinkers of the past half century. By focusing on the single person, he said, “leadership becomes part of the syndrome of individuality” that is undermining organisations. “By the excessive promotion of leadership, we demote everyone else”.

In business there is surprisingly little evidence that directly links leaders to the performance of their organisations. In 1985 James R Meindl led a piece of research called “The Romance of Leadership”, which found that actions of the company chief accounted for just 15 per cent of the variation in the company’s performance. Meindl’s “romance of leadership” is apparent throughout sport, where the cult of the celebrity coach thrives despite plenty of research evidence to suggest his or her input is limited. Like Sir Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer treatment, we prefer to think of team performance as being a direct consequence of the manager’s actions. As Meindl pointed out, if leadership were that easy we’d all be doing it. The leader-follower relationship he said, is not linear, it is more fluid and harder to grasp.

This, however, doesn’t make such good copy.


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