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

Fri, Apr 25, 2014, 01:10

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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