Does a leader really matter? – Part I

A captain is as good as the team” is a commonly quoted line in sports. So the question that keeps popping up is that does a leader actually change anything or is it only about the personnel in the team. Two events in the past two years seem to provide insights into this question. In this first part of the article, I will focus on one event.

This event is from the arena of sports. Sir Alex Ferguson in his last season with Manchester United, led the Red Devils to a the League championship winning the title by 11 points over the nearest opponents. The next year, David Moyes took over as the manager of the team and the result was a 7th place finish, 22 points behind the team winning in the first place. With approximately, the same players what a difference a season had made to the fortunes of Manchester United. Or was it the managers who made it different?

Sir Alex is a strong leader who is very articulate of his views and has a larger than life persona about him. His sides in the past had performed miracles and had time and again bounced back from the lows to achieve the biggest goals there was in the game. This background of Sir Alex gave a belief to his team that he could pull a rabbit out of his habit and this got them more focused on giving their best on the field and keep fighting till the end. The proverbial “Fergie time” i.e. the last 5 minutes + injury team when the team would simply throw everything at the opposition to get that goal that could either win the match or salvage a point was the result of this belief of the team.

On the other hand, David Moyes was a silent achiever who earned his reputation as a hard working manager at a much smaller club with much smaller ambitions. He was a bit under stated and his biggest achievements was leading Everton to 4th place in the league. So when he took over as the manager of the club especially after the super success the club enjoyed under Sir Alex, there were already question marks on whether he can lead. To add to this he did not have a halo of past achievements to fall back on. Every setback only increased the questions and led to more pessimism and fear psychosis within the team. The situation reached its lowest point when the senior players in the team started questioning the manager and his authority was under question. The result showed on the field with the team lacking in ideas whenever
the opposition pressed them and the “Fergie time” was replaced by one where conceding late goals became a pattern with the team.

This stark change in the fortunes can directly be attributed to the ability of two individuals ability to change the narrative of a team and extract the maximum of the team. On the one hand, Fergie’s never give up attitude and larger than life personality meant that the team had the narrative of never giving up. On the other hand the slightly subdued attitude of Moyes and his inability to impose himself on a team full of egos gave the team a pessimistic narrative and the team ended up fighting within itself rather than fighting others!! Of course, to think that only the difference in the personalities of two individuals could be the reason of all Manchester United’s problems would be an over-simplification of the facts. But usually the task on the field is done by the players, most of the coaching and strategies are devised by the coaches and team. The key difference that a manager makes to the team is that as a leader he sets the tone for teams beliefs, ambitions and its overall outlook to the task at hand. If the leader cannot lift the gloom surrounding the team after a defeat, or cannot bring the feet back on ground after a win then the team cannot succeed in the long term.

But, what we need to note here is that Moyes was considered extremely successful at Everton where the ambitions were much lower and the goals were significantly less. This means being a leader at one level might not mean that leadership can be achieved at all levels. Like other aspects of life, leadership is also to be looked at in the context of situation, personnel and times that one finds oneself in.

– Ram

(The second part of this series can be accessed at: Does a leader really matter? – Part II)


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