Don’t Copy these Shockingly Lousy Leader Behaviours From Elite Football

Leader Behaviours You Needn't Copy to Succeed

My next statement is considered sacrilegious by 3.5 billion people.

I am not a fan of football.

I make no apologies; it’s not my cup of tea at all.

But last month, whilst in London, I got hooked. Not by ‘The Beautiful Game’ but by the drama that unfolded around one of the biggest names in football.

Fascinated, I even ditched the lifestyle magazine in the newspaper in favour of the sports pages. Crazy right?
Enthralled – that was me. I can’t deny it. Binge-watching TV news blasts and commentaries about the epic tale of a celebrated leader’s dramatic fall from grace became my ‘edutainment’ pastime.

I gobbled up every twist and turn in the plot of the soap opera that was ‘The Fall of the Special One’A.K.A Chelsea Football Club’s Manager, José Mourinho.

His descent from multiple championship winning Manager (he led Chelsea to 3 Premier League titles wins) to humiliating defeat and dismissal from his position is a tragedy of his own doing – worthy of Shakespeare.

The Leadership Attraction

As human beings we never get tired of leadership stories; especially those with human triumphs against the odds, character exposés and sensational downfalls.

Despite all that has been written, researched, taught, observed and analysed – leadership remains a perplexing puzzle stubbornly refusing to be picked apart and decoded.

So we continue our search for the Leadership Holy Grail.

The race is on to find the legendary Philosopher’s Stone that could perhaps turn an ordinary human being into an extraordinary leader. Perhaps…

New insight regularly promises to bring us one step closer to understanding the secret elixir of effective leadership. Like this recently published piece of research from McKinsey which hints at the discovery of 4 types of behaviour which could be the secret keys to developing effective leaders. Eureka! Or is it?

These 2 things I know for sure.


1. We know when we are in the presence of inspirational, or motivational or transformational, or brave, or history-defining leaders.

2. We definitely know when we are in the presence of The Dark Force – malevolent, or unpredictable, or weak, or incompetent or megalomaniacal leaders.

I cannot tell you the secret ingredient(s) needed to develop an effective leader. If I knew I would tell you.
But I have a clear idea of the behavioural ingredients that are NOT part of the secret leadership recipe.
‘The Special One’ – José Mourinho’s public fall from grace and his final humiliation of being sacked from the Club is a perfect reminder of Leader Behaviour You Needn’t Copy to Succeed.

Let me share with you what I learnt from the media brouhaha.

5 Shockingly Lousy Leadership Behaviours

Here are the Red Card behaviours that resonated a loud No way José!

1. Unhealthy Addiction to Winning: Now don’t misunderstand me, I know we are talking about top level sport. Winning IS the goal. But HOW you win is the key.

The “kill to win, die to win” mind-set may bring in stellar results; but this road to success is paved with the enemies who lie in wait for their chance for retribution.

Much was made of Mourinho’s subtle yet revealing change in the way he referred to his team – the players – in the media.

When Chelsea won, he called them “my players”.
When Chelsea lost and the losing streak continued unabated, he called them “the players”.

In toxic organisational cultures, this play is a classic example of ‘throwing your team members under the bus’ – then reversing over them for good measure.

A leadership style with this behaviour at its core cannot survive under the pressure of losing. The lousy behaviour which may be overlooked when you are winning is not tolerated when you are losing.

2. It’s All About Me: A leader’s self-belief and clarity of vision are key in motivating the team to achieve a desired goal.

However, the belief that the team is subservient to the leader, disturbs a hornets’ nest of troubles that can only end badly.

The reality is that the leader can only do so much, as in the end matches are won and lost by the players’ actions on the field, not the manager’s.

Alastair Campbell, scholar of what it takes to win, writes this nugget of wisdom in his article in the Sunday Times News Review:

“…winning organisations must have the holy trinity of strategy, leadership and teamship working in harmony. Teams without strategy fail. Teams without good leaders fail. Leaders without strategy fail. Leaders without teamship operating at every level of the organisation fail.”

3. Leading without Positive Values: Where there is a values vacuum in the organisation, The Dark Force can enter.

In the absence of clearly defined values embedded in the organisation’s DNA, where little or no leadership accountability exists, something negative will fill the void.  The obsession with winning by any means grows and egos run unchecked in a culture that becomes increasingly toxic.

Is there an acceptable cost for this behaviour?

Mourinho’s public row and belittling of the team’s doctor Eva Carneiro during Chelsea v. Swansea City match is an example of leader power going dark. She rushed on field to do her job as the custodian of player welfare, against his directive.

This event continues to play out in the courts and already has negative implications for the reputation of the Club and all parties involved.

In the end, “people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou.

Values are needed to guide the leader and the team through the good times, but their importance as a steadying anchor really comes into play in the bad times.

4. One Track Mind Leadership: For those leaders stubbornly holding on to an ego-led command and control leadership style as their only approach, the writing is on the wall.
‘My Way or the Highway’ no longer guarantees direct reports’ blind compliance.

Whether we want to accept it or not, leadership has been democratised.

Today’s leaders have to manage up (Boards, Executives, Shareholders), down (direct reports), and sideways (fans, customers, community).

Let’s not forget the ubiquitous presence of social media. It is here that anyone can instantly become an ‘expert’. Collectively these ‘experts’ voices have the power to negatively or positively impact the fortunes and reputation of leaders and the organisations which..

360 degree relationship management that is in tune with the needs and desires of all stakeholders, is a must-do for today’s effective leader.

5. No Remorse: As with many stories about a leader left out in the cold, Mourinho’s comeback from apparent relegation to persona non grata will depend on how he reacts to this set back, what lessons he learns and how he applies those lessons.

Not everyone can have a triumphant comeback like Steve Jobs’.

Will our obsession with winning at the cost of those who trust us to lead trump the need for effective values-led leaders?

Only time will tell.
The world of elite sport is a valuable source of leadership lessons which can be applied to your organisation.

As a leader or HR responsible for leadership development you, have a responsibility to go all out to avoid or prevent these shockingly lousy leadership gaffes on your watch.

  • What Red Card-worthy negative leader behaviour have you encountered?
  • What tips can you share about how to handle lousy leader behaviour?

Tell me about your experience and tips in the comments below.

Here are my backstory sources for this blog post.

  • TV sports news e.g. BBC, ITV, SKY Sports (binge-watching).
  • “The New Era Was Doomed to End in Tears” by Rob Draper, Chief Football Writer, in The Mail on Sunday, December 20, 2015.
  • The Sunday Times’ Sport Section, pages 2-4, 20.12.2015.
  • The Sunday Times’ News Review, Section 4, “Downfall” stories by Alastair Campbell and various writers in pgs. 1-3, 20.12.2015.

This post was originally posted in full in the blog The HR Rabbit Hole on 10th January 2016. It has been tweaked only a little and now freshly served for the Recruiting Blogs community.

Nicole is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Aquarius Human Resources Consulting Ltd. Passionate about HR as Art, she is an advocate of Creative HR and transforming HR. Connect via Twitter @AquariusHRLtd.

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