Manchester United- What can we learn?


30th April 2014

Manchester United - What Can We Learn ?

The recent events at Manchester United are another powerful reminder of how difficult it is for organisations to manage leadership transitions involving charismatic individuals. 

There seems to be a common story - recognise this?

  • strong charismatic leader enjoys a long successful period which created huge loyalty and expectation of continuted success
  • there is no plan for succession because very often there is no serious consideration that the leader may leave
  • then comes the speculation and reluctant search for a replacement
  • this person, although talented, is frequently not as successful or highly regarded as the person being replaced
  • a relatively short, difficult period follows with much frustration and division
  • the replacement leaves with some begruding sympathy
  • a temporary solution may be put in place but now the focus is on the "big person" who has been found and will arrive soon

What are the lessons here?

Charismatic leaders are hard to replace - success can breed a sense of complacency that seduces us into inertia - strong individuals rarely develop or even want successors - we are reluctant to challenge charismatic leaders

All of these are true and we probably already know them. 

More teamwork - less individualism?

What is much more interesting and often less considered is the role of those left behind, those that have been and will be led – the team. There is a need to grieve, to come to terms with the loss of the strong leader. A period of adjustment and acceptance somehow has to be managed before the new arrival can begin to actively break the old order and establish something really new. This is what those left behind, the team, are actually resisting, either consciously or unconsciously.

Maybe the secret for organisations is to put the focus more on the leadership team. Get them to accept and buy-in to the need for change much earlier. Ask them, perhaps, how they think the transition could best be managed but help them to see and understand that change must come and need not be a negative experience.

However, the key learning is to build leadership based on real teamwork and less individualism and to actively develop succession for key positions so that change, when it comes, is not so painful for those involved.

Maybe too, unlike football, organisations need to be more sceptical  and ready to question the value of the individualistic, charismatic leader.

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