Leaders in sport: what works and what doesn’t?

June 13, 2017

Former Newcastle United and Sunderland AFC player Steve Harper looks at leadership in sport and reflects on the style of some of the managers and coaches he’s played under

The best description I can give for leadership in football is that it’s very transactional.

Win and you may get the bonus of an extra day off and a happy manager. Lose and you’re faced with extra training, a moody manager and restricted days off.

Perhaps then, that it’s no wonder that this short-term (win the next game) focus results in a volatile environment with a high turnover of personnel.

Managers I played under ranged from motivators like Kevin Keegan – an authentic and inspirational figure, and a great speaker who could find the words to motivate anyone – to Ruud Gullit, who was another great player but had real issues as a young, relatively inexperienced manger in trying to man-manage some big characters; it was his failure to do this that ultimately cost him his job at Newcastle.

The late, great Sir Bobby Robson was by far the best all-round example of the art of man-management. On his first few days in the role, he had ten-minute one-to-ones with every player. In these meetings he was sussing out their character and probing to see if they needed an arm round their shoulder or a kick up the backside.

He was the only manager I ever saw do this in my 23 years as a player.

Sir Bobby was also very ‘hands on’. He was everywhere! He’d be in the gym doing the sit-ups and supervising, he’d be conducting the warm-ups and he’d regularly come into the players’ room. It was this attention to detail and interest in his players that helped him succeed in his managerial career.

Getting to know the individual is the key to leadership and management for me.

Steve Bruce used to say: “I’ll treat you all fairly but I can’t treat you all equally.”

You often hear in football that someone is a good coach but not a manager, or vice versa, and this makes perfect sense to me.

A good coach can deliver a quality training session packed full of technical information but how it’s delivered is the key. The lack of rapport or a relationship with your players means the impact is mostly wasted.

In my opinion, a manager who creates a relationship with his players – even if they lack technical information – will always be more successful in getting the best out of the team.

The increasing use of a sporting director can also significantly reduce the demands on managers in the modern game.

A sporting director can remove the responsibility of recruitment of the best staff within budget, the scouting and recruitment of players, the Academy training and the medical/sports science needs.

They can create a culture to support the identity of the football club from top to bottom.

This frees up a manager to concentrate on the very difficult role of coaching and leading a high-performing sporting organisation – especially given the ever-increasing demands from the press and social media.

If you look at the most successful leaders in sport, such as Sir Clive Woodward and Sir Alex Ferguson, they had the same qualities: an incredible attention to detail, excellent man-management skills and very high standards of authentic leadership.

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