· 5 min read · Features

Can leaders learn from football?


We can learn a lot about general leadership from football, including finding the root cause of organisational problems and defining success

In the 10 football seasons played between September 2005 and May 2015, there were no fewer than 107 managerial changes from the clubs that formed England’s Premier League. Of this 107, 27 were shown the door by Christmas. This rate of turnover is astronomical compared with managerial change in other industries, and the number of managers pressured into leaving or sacked within a month of the start of the season is especially worrying.

In that 10-year timeframe, fewer than 30 FTSE 100 CEOs left their posts. Imagine a scenario in which 90 had been asked to leave – companies would be left without any clear or long-term direction over corporate culture and strategy.

While it is unquestionable that the corporate behaviour in the world of football is practically unique, it is worth considering whether the pressures and forces at play are really that far removed from what managers experience in other industries.

Football managers may receive a lot of bad press, but there is still much we can learn about general leadership from the context of football. Recently, I had the opportunity to write a chapter for a new book, Leadership Lessons from Compelling Contexts, with my colleagues Sarah Gilmore from Portsmouth University and the late Graham Dietz, who worked with me at Durham University Business School.

Graham was the biggest Arsenal fan and by definition an expert on football leadership, which is why we chose to look into the lessons we can learn from football. Several questions (and lessons) arise from the football manager model.

First, does it make sense to sack managers? The answer seems to be somewhere between ‘depends’ and ‘probably not’. We know that managerial change is expensive, especially when there is a sacking. Not only does the person have to be replaced (and potentially with a more costly successor), the process incurs search costs and sometimes, at least in larger companies, a so-called ‘golden handshake’.

Research into football suggests that sacking can be a scapegoating ritual rather than the best reaction to unsatisfactory performance. In the world of football, manager changes might include changes of other staff that can then influence performance, which is a positive move, but they might also not. If managerial sackings are used as a means not to look into the root cause of problems, they are unlikely to be effective, and this is true of all industries.

This is not unrelated to the question of whether or not expectations placed on a leader are realistic or merely reflect wishful thinking. In the latter case, what is perceived as underperformance might just be realistic performance and is underperformance only due to unrealistic expectations (dare I mention the England national team here…)

Especially where company success is due to events outside a leader’s control, and thus leaders have little influence on performance, sacking is not the best choice. Indeed, fewer managerial changes even through less successful times might be preferable.

So why in football is it usually the manager who is routinely sacked in the scapegoating ritual? Why not the coach? Or the chairman? This raises the question as to who is actually responsible for which aspect of performance. In football, the manager is the public face of the team, and the audience is the general public.

This allows the organisation to bypass proper procedures which should be used to get to the root cause of problems (we also see this in politics). Success and failure are complex processes, and it is not often that a single person can be held responsible. More often than not a more detailed analysis might be necessary. This should investigate the hierarchical nature of an organisation and who is actually in charge, rather than sacking the individual who is most visible.

So how do you identify success? This sounds like a question with an obvious answer, but often it is not. Share prices and quarterly outcomes are not the only measures of success, and assuming that they are can lead to confusion within organisations as to how the performance of an individual, a team or even a company can accurately be assessed. Other, longer-term indicators can be more relevant, such as the company image, staff satisfaction, as both can lead to a better pool of future employees to draw from.

We learn from football that success is relative: it is dependent on resources. With a big enough pot of money, success in football is almost guaranteed. So, when success is relative, we need to define what success is, and that can be very different for different companies depending on their resources.

When the manager of, say, Sunderland is sacked for not winning the Premier League title, we can agree that this might be due to unrealistic expectations. Before taking on a new manager, targets should be clear and realistic, and the resources that shaped those expectations must be kept in perspective when reviewing performance.

An obstacle for managers in football and in other industries is that they often take over existing teams. The composition of the team can determine success, meaning that the success of the new manager might, partly, depend on the work of the old manager. Finding ways to build on previous work is important.

We see in all walks of life that the best managers are able to get the most out of the individuals they manage. A new manager has to build up a rapport with the team members and use the quality of their expertise to influence the productivity and effectiveness of their team’s output. Thus, in order to determine success, it is important to also look at the legacy taken over by the new manager.

It is also important to carefully define what the manager’s responsibilities are. Thinking about big versus small clubs, the tasks of managers can differ immensely. In a small club, the manager might virtually do everything (incurring, often enough, the stress and lack of work/life balance that comes with that), where in larger clubs, specialists in different areas support the manager and they have more of an overview function than engaging in hands-on man management. The same will be true for different types of organisation. How far a company structure reflects a specification of departments, depends on size but also on preferences on how to run a business.

Managerial roles can be fuzzy in terms of their boundaries. Two people in the same field with the same job title are not necessarily overseeing the same tasks. Account manager and account director are two common job titles in industry where the lines can often be blurred, depending on the structure of a company, for example. What exactly are managers responsible for, what is their remit? If the manager is held responsible for overall company performance (as is often the case in football), it is potentially quite tempting to micro-manage to make sure that everything is under control. This, however, is deemed to be ineffective and adds to the stress of the manager. It must be made fully clear to the manager what their job entails before being able to accurately assess the performance of an individual. Micro-management might well be appropriate in some circumstances, but, clarity about the job description is critical.

Assessing the performance of an individual in a managerial post is extremely complex, and the process of effective assessment begins before they have arrived. It is the role of senior management within the organisation to define the parameters of the job role and, if there was a previous manager in the role, to comprehensively analyse the work they left behind. After that, the onus is on the individual to perform, but a holistic – sometimes long-term – view of what success looks like is imperative in making the right judgement.

Football provides some important lessons in showing us how to get this right, but it also reveals severe weaknesses in the organisational process of hiring and firing which every industry must avoid.

Birgit Schyns is professor of organisational behaviour at Durham University and co-authored the chapter 'What lesson can we learn from football about leadership and management?' in the book Leadership Lessons from Compelling Contexts