Dealing with failure, blame-culture and motivation. What the BBC’s football class of ’92 tells us about leadership skills.
I saw BBC1’s new documentary last week Class of ’92 – out of their league – ostensibly about how the football ‘class of 92’ Manchester United’s Scholes, Giggs, Butt and the Neville brothers have bought Salford City, a football club seven tiers down from the Premier League with the aim of promoting the team up. Now I know nothing at all about football (and if you’re a Man U fan don’t start hating on me) but I had it on the background whilst I was doing something else, but I got more and more interested (and pretty horrified), largely due to the old-school management methods, lack of leadership skills and the parallels with running teams in business.
Early on in the programme it became glaringly obvious that there were clear leadership issues. The (rookie) manager was struggling to garner respect from some of the stronger personalities in the team, they were arguing with each other in the dressing room, bitching behind his back and questioning his competency. Whilst Alec Ferguson’s hairdryer in the face bollockings are renowned, what I found most surprising about the programme was the level of serious aggression being shown in terms of the way they behaved and spoke to each other (and this included the Man United guys). Maybe I’m naïve and clearly I’ve never been in involved in coaching a sports team, but I do know a bit about leadership skills and it was really grim to watch.
At certain points, following losses and the subsequent bollockings, the players looked close to tears, totally demoralized and beaten. There was talk of ripping people’s heads off, strangling people, cracking the whip – all the language had violent undertones. In terms of motivation, is shouting and aggression really going to motivate people to perform better? I’m not saying they could all have done with a cuddle but in psychological terms this is what’s known as away-from motivation – stick rather than carrot. In this case moving away from being castigated, publicly shamed and made to feel totally worthless and crap. One of the guys in the team admitted to previously suffering from, and getting treatment for, depression and I particularly felt for him in this environment. It was all pretty ugly to watch – demotivating, depressing, aggressive – and the key thing was the strategy just wasn’t working. You have to be really psychological resilient to cope with this level of almost constant attack.
The opposite to this is towards motivation – which there was none of demonstrated in this episode – setting goals (as well as scoring them), praise where it’s due and having a common aim. This all requires trust, which was clearly seriously lacking amongst the team and the manager. If this was a team working in a business there would be a hastily convened away-day to get a lot of this stuff out in the open and dealt with, not left festering away causing bad blood, low mood and terrible performance. I actually felt sorry for the manager because there was a total blame culture from the Man U guys, rather than showing any leadership themselves and trying to help him to help the team, and inevitably they fired him.
It also made me think about the difference between male and female leaders. Maybe I’m wrong but I really don’t think a team of women, led by a woman, would conduct themselves like that. Sure the all-female teams on The Apprentice can descend into bitchiness but it’s not on the same level. There was a level of fear just rumbling under the whole time. And does any of this fear-based motivation (for want of a better word) rub off on guys who play team sports and are also leaders and somehow make it more acceptable?
The ‘kill or be killed’ ‘management’ method and mentality is far more relevant to C4’s new series, SAS Who Dares Wins, which is putting 30 men through their paces in terms of physical and psychological resilience. Whilst it is more reality TV, it is attempting to show what is required in a war scenario so it’s understandably pretty harsh. But there’s more praise and support going on (only where it’s been earned) from the ex-special forces guys to theire recruits than in the Salford dressing room. That can’t be right. War is war, football is supposed to be fun on some level right?
There are loads of books out there on how to approach business like sport and leadership skills (including ironically ‘How to Think Like Sir Alex Ferguson: The Business of Winning and Managing Success’ perhaps one for the class of ’92 to read). I’d love to see some of this applied the other way around. I won’t be watching any more of the football series but I’d be really interested to hear other people’s opinions on the style of ‘management’ in sport, whether what’s going on in this programme is the norm and what it’s like to be on the end of it.
Claire Bridges has an MSc from City University London in Creativity, Leadership and Innovation and runs workshops with business leaders on how to up the creative ante in business along with leadership coach Elizabeth Lovius who works with the RFU amongst many other organisations.