Learning from Leaders

As part of the 2020 FA UEFA Pro Licence 25 managers and coaches were interviewed to find out what were the key characteristics of success at the top end of professional sport.

Amongst those interviewed were Premiership managers Scott Parker, Jose Mourinho and Graham Potter. We also had Sir Alex Ferguson, Steven Gerrard, Roberto Martinez and Carlo Ancellotti. From the EFL we had Jonathan Woodgate, Paul Warne, Michael O’Neil, Chris Hughton and Nigel Adkins. From rugby, Ronan O’Gara and cricket, Alex Stewart. Each interview was shared in presentations so we could try and find the shared characteristics of leaders of top football teams.

The 14 characteristics below are those which were repeated across the presentations and appear to be consistent for this selection of Leaders.

  1. The more and varied the experience managers gained the more likely they were to see themselves as leaders rather than coaches.
  2. Managers use well-considered personal values to set behavioural standards for themselves and players.
  3. Honesty, openness and a willingness to trust were traits which were referenced a lot.
  4. Managers see themselves as having a responsibility for, and being the source of, positivity across the club
  5. Influencers – particularly managers for whom they have played – strongly shape the leader behaviours when in post.
  6. Club management experience changes the leader behaviours, often, but not always, ‘softening’ towards more empathy and consideration of players’ needs.
  7. Making time for one-to-one conversations, sometimes with targeted players, were seen as crucial to player buy-in and therefore success.
  8. Successful managers showed an ability to simplify and communicate things for players, staff and club.
  9. There was a balance between managers who surrounded themselves with people they trust and others with people who will challenge them.
  10. Decision-Making, especially under pressure, was seen as a key part of the role.
  11. Some interviewees felt the role to be isolated with nothing preparing you fully for it. As a role model they felt under constant spotlight.
  12. Good leaders seem to smooth out the emotional highs and lows and absorb any pressure rather than pass it on to players and staff.
  13. The environment – especially positive professional relationships – is seen as a key leader responsibility but only a few of the football managers interviewed seemed insightful about, or talked of, setting up club systems and structures.
  14. The ability to adapt their leadership style to different club circumstances doesn’t come through as a strong characteristic of this group.