Sunday, 14 April 2024
Sunday, 14 April 2024

Any lessons from sports and politics on being a good leader?

Like many men, I used to read the sports pages of newspapers first, but on becoming a charity CEO, I was told it was good practice to read four papers a day, to gain a wider view of events. Now the news headlines are so apocalyptic that you read them first and keep checking, during the day, that something worse hasn’t happened. 

I believe management in the voluntary sector is harder than in the private sector as there is no agreed bottom line (i.e. profit), with many different opinions about what success represents. Additionally, stakeholders expect to have more influence on decision-making as Peter Drucker pointed out. However, I have to say that top-class football management is probably even harder and wondered if there were lessons to be gained from sports management. 

Becoming a manager I’d read about how sports managers improve staff performance, particularly Sir Alex Ferguson, generally accepted as the best football manager ever. He was determined and ruthless, discarding players when they were past it or too old. His book, ‘Leading,’ with Sir Michael Moritz, was interesting, but unfortunately, the most informative sections were not by Sir Alex. 

Of course, competitive football is very different from almost all charity provisions, as it is an adrenaline-based pursuit where participants must operate on the edge and there are clear winners and losers – a bit like politics. The average tenure of an English football manager is around 14 months. Manchester United still have not found an adequate successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, with 5 managers in the 9 years since he left. 

I thought that cycling might be a better sport to examine to learn how to improve performance since there is no physical contact, such as tackling, and thus the culture should be less macho. Great praise was lavished on Sir David Brailsford, the UK Performance Director, who some claimed has done more for UK cycling than any individual rider or coach. For around a hundred years, British riders had won just one Olympic gold medal, while no British cyclist had ever won cycling’s biggest race, the Tour de France. In fact, the performance of British riders was so bad that a top bike manufacturer refused to sell bikes to the team in case it would hurt sales if other professionals saw the Brits using their gear. Great success started with his appointment and he then saw similar success with Team Sky. This was based on a system of marginal gains and intensive coaching.

However, winning should not be the only criterion of successful sports management. There has been great criticism of British Cycling’s ruthless pursuit of performance, with reports of the creation of a brutal and macho culture in the team. Then Team Sky was accused of several drug scandals and crossing an ‘ethical line’ by exploiting loopholes ‘to enhance the performance of riders’.

Leadership is a really difficult skill to acquire and implement, particularly in stressful times. Over the last few weeks, we’ve had graphic illustrations of this, as our new Prime Minister “made what must rank as one of the worst starts to a premiership in history,” according to the Sunday Times. Her decisions spooked the markets, through “a careless approach” announcing controversial policies that had not been properly examined or discussed sufficiently with relevant stakeholders. As a result, the PM had to make two screeching U-turns, and will almost certainly have to change track on other proposals.

You might ask what relevance is this to any charity management, which of course entails leading much smaller organisations’ with fewer responsibilities, and, probably most importantly, little or no intense public scrutiny. There are many lessons from this debacle including how not to initiate new policies. It is clearly good practice for leaders to research their decisions thoroughly before rushing in and blindly following unrealistic theories. They should examine all possible options thoroughly, sift the evidence fully and consult stakeholders comprehensively.

The slogan ‘Fail to prepare. Prepare to fail,’ is very true, even if simplistic. Leaders should never be over-confident and must pick their battles carefully. Unfortunately, proposals have been floated to keep benefit rises down while No 10’s economic advisor has previously suggested freezing pensions and slashing non-frontline NHS and school staff.

The British Cycling example illustrates the issue of pursuing certain goals above everything else, with such single-mindedness that other considerations are ignored. Somehow this reminds me of Prime Minister Truss, but perhaps there will be more U-turns to prove me wrong as I write this, although one experienced commentator said “U-turns may seldom be fatal in themselves but they are typically a symptom of an incompetent or overconfident government.


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