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Leadership – Strong or Weak?

Leadership - Strong or Weak

Jeff Randall writing in the Telegraph on April 30th (http://ow.ly/aMghj) beat me to it. The article is certainly engaging and looks at the need for a bit of “Di Matteo magic” or what he calls the personal touch at giant businesses like Barclays and Tesco to “drag them from the doldrums”.

I decided to wait until Chelsea had actually won something however, before commenting; Saturday’s fourth FA Cup win in six years was a “result” from all that improved Chelsea on-field performance. Working hard, trying, having better team spirit and morale are all great; but it is “results” that really count. That is certainly in football, and probably in most organisations that are trying to achieve something actually.

I had been watching with interest in these last few weeks, the growing form and confidence of the Chelsea Football team – so at odds with the form displayed before the 4th March 2012 departure of their former Manager, Andre Villas-Boas. Roberto Di Matteo was not an “unknown” – he is ex Chelsea player and was promoted from Assistant Manager to Interim Manager until the end of the season when AVB departed. However, it was the same squad of players, the same individuals, performing in the same stadium, at the business-end of three major competitions – Barclays Premiership, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League.

In the run up to AVB departing Chelsea had won one game in the previous seven; post his departure at the time of writing they have won 12 and drawn 4 of the last 18. They have won the FA Cup and will appear in The Champions League Final in Munich; just a few weeks back this was unthinkable. So what prompted this major turn-around?

There has been much debate about the role of Chelsea’s senior players. Just 10 days into the Interim Manager’s tenure was a second leg tie against Napoli in the Champions League which took place at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea 3-1 down from the away leg. It was a fantastic night of football and Chelsea eventually won 4-1 after extra time. There was much made of the role of John Terry (Chelsea captain and senior player), who was substituted early in extra time. A report at the time stated:- “This brings us to the most significant impression of all from the Napoli match. When players are substituted they join their team-mates on the bench and fret like the fans. Terry didn’t. He stood almost beside interim manager Roberto Di Matteo and bellowed instructions from the touchline, looking like nothing so much as an assistant boss. It was far beyond the brief of a player. You do not see this at any other major football club, and few minor ones. There’s a good reason for that – it blurs the lines of authority and is a recipe for disaster.” This article continued:- “The image Terry gave to the world with his touchline shouting and gesturing at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday evening was more than merely unfortunate. It gave the game away about how influential he believes he is to Chelsea FC. The answer is: Too much.”

The thinking then was that Di Matteo was weak, effectively allowing the senior players to run the team and tactics, evidenced by John Terry at this match, adopting a coaching role from the sidelines and standing in front of the Interim Manager.

My observation then and now is that Di Matteo allowing Terry to “lead” from the touchline does not necessarily mean that he is a “weak” leader? Leadership is not about doing it all, it is about harnessing all your resources to deliver the results that you want. Why not let Terry do off the pitch what he does on it? He is the team’s long-standing and natural leader; even without the title and armband that reads “captain”, he behaves no differently. Leading the team on the pitch is what he does; it is in him; he can do no other.

Rather, Di Matteo is clever in my view. Intelligently harnessing all the experience and know how around him, rather than allowing his own ego to dictate who knows best. Di Matteo appears quite secure in who he is and therefore unthreatened by those around him who might know better or have things to contribute. In handling himself in this way it is no surprise to me that the people in his team have responded well and have achieved unbelievable results against all odds.
This approach seems quite unusual in football, as if the key ability to manage people and get the best from them is somehow not required because it is “football”? However, it is also sadly lacking in non-football environments – where insecure leaders feel the need to be seen (and heard) to be leading, squash contribution, and actually reduce performance from what could be. They have the ideas, decide the strategy, drive change, communicate vision, set targets and establish standards.

To quote Lao Tzu – When the best leader’s work is done, the people say “we did it ourselves.” Now that would be one, very secure leader. So, how secure are you in your leadership role on a scale of 1 – 10? How do you know? How would those you lead rate you? What would it take to raise your score one notch? How about a leadership MOT check?