Machiavelli, Manchester United, and Leadership for the Long Game

Many years ago, I dated a girl who was a big Manchester United fan.  Now I have to say, at this point, that I don’t particularly like football but I liked her and so I spent a ridiculous amount of money (and called in a few favours) to buy tickets to see the team play at Old Trafford on her birthday.  As I recall, it was a dull game (a one-all draw) but she enjoyed it.

I don’t suppose she’s enjoyed very many games over the last few months.  Should you not have been following the story, Alex Ferguson, the team’s manager for over 26 years, retired last year and the club appointed David Moyes as their new manager, partly on the recommendation of Ferguson.  Since then, things have not gone well.  After almost relentless criticism and a string of lacklustre performances and results, Moyes was fired this week, after less than a year in the post.  Moyes had enjoyed some success at previous teams – enough for Manchester United to see him as a viable successor, at least.  He didn’t suddenly become a bad manager when he joined his new club, so what went wrong?

We see frequently that leadership is culturally specific: a leadership style that’s highly effective in one organisation can be ineffective in another.  Is that what happened here?  Did Moyes suffer from following such a well-known and charismatic leader? Would anyone have suffered by comparison, purely because they weren’t Ferguson?  Or was something else going on?  Ferguson is typically regarded as one of the most successful managers that the game has seen but as I read the newspaper reports this week, I wondered.

There were signs that perhaps Ferguson wasn’t quite the example of great leadership that one might hope.  Stories of violent outbursts in the dressing room, of football boots being kicked or thrown at players; accusations of harassing linesmen and referees; refusals to shake hands with rivals; of mind games and intimidation and just flat out bullying.  Ferguson was famous for the “hairdryer treatment” where he would stand nose to nose with an underperforming player and scream at them.  Would we accept this kind of behaviour from a business leader, regardless of how good their results were?  Should we take it from any leader at all, no matter how good their results?  How much of the success of a team led like this is simply down to fear of the leader?

Machiavelli might have thought it was better to be feared than loved but that was five hundred years ago in a very different context and I like to think that we’ve evolved our performance management thinking a little since then.  Fear is the easy route: bully or shout at someone enough and work becomes the line of least resistance.  It’s a simple, short-term fix and too often leaders take this route under pressure to produce results in the short-term.  Far harder for a leader to inspire a team, to engage with them, to gain their respect and commitment – but far better, in the long term.

How do we judge the success of leaders?  Of course, the results they achieve are a large part but I think there’s something else.  I remember a participant in one of my leadership workshops who boasted of his abilities.  He knew he was a great leader, he said, because when he left his organisation, the team he had been leading completely fell apart without him.  I thought then, and I still think, that is a ridiculous way to measure leadership capabilities.

The role of a great leader is to become wholly dispensable.  Like a good coach, an effective leader works not to create dependency but independence.  Any fool can create a team that relies totally on the leader for its continued results; great leaders develop and inspire team members who understand how to rely on themselves and function well, even when the leader isn’t there.  The true test of leadership, I believe, is the legacy that the leader leaves.

Warren Buffet said that it’s when the tide goes out that we learn who’s been swimming naked.  So too with leaders.  Only when leaders “have left the building” can we truly judge how great – or otherwise – they were.  If the team falls apart when the leader goes, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the quality of his or her contribution to the organization.



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