Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Today - leadership is a hot topic.  

Everyone is talking about what a great job the leaders of LOCOG did in putting on the Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The great speeches by national leaders, Sebastian Coe and David Cameron.  (and even better speeches by local leader Boris Johnson).  

...and we are talking about coaching.  

...when Andy Murray has - after 76 years of failure - finally given Great Britain a Grand Slam winner - widely attributed to his coach, Ivan Llendl.  

...and when UK Athletics Head Coach Charles Van Commonee has ended weeks of speculation by announcing that he will leave his post once his contract is up at the end of this year.  

So I thought this may be an opportune time to share some thoughts on the topic. 

Coaching is leadership.  And leadership is coaching.  They are one and the same.  One cannot be a successful coach without being a good leader, and one cannot lead without knowing how to coach.  There is much great research, and many amazing books on leadership.  In fact, a couple of books that are currently in my reading pile are two of the best: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion is not a leadership book, per se, but it does offer some very valuable insight into an evolutionary perspective on leadership in its ninth and tenth chapters; and perhaps the best biography I have ever read - at a whopping 900+ pages, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.  Roosevelt is respected as one of the greatest leaders of our times, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in leadership, politics, and biographies in general.  

Ever since 1978, when historian, political scientist, and Pulitzer Prize winner, James Burns shifted the focus of leadership from the traits of leaders, to their successful interaction and collaboration with others, most companies have employed a more collaborative system of governance.  Burns identified two distinct leadership styles:  he defined a transactional leader as “one who initiates contact with subordinates in an effort to exchange something of value, such as rewards for performance, mutual support, or bilateral disclosure”; and a transformational leader as one who “engages with others in such a way that the leader and the follower raise one another to a higher level of motivation and morality...higher aspirations or goals of the collective group are expected to transcend the individual and result in the achievement of significant change in work unit effectiveness”.  Kaiser and Hogan offer this summary of the research literature: Transactional leadership appeals to followers’ self-interest, but transformational leadership changes the way followers see themselves—from isolated individuals to members of a larger group. Transformational leaders do this by modeling collective commitment (e.g., through self-sacrifice and the use of “we” rather than “I”), emphasizing the similarity of group members, and reinforcing collective goals, shared values, and common interests (Haidt).

Lowe, et. al., performed a meta-analysis on 39 studies of leadership styles in 1996 which clearly supports the belief that transformational leadership is associated with work unit effectiveness. This effectiveness is highly dependent on the leader’s ability to inspire a collaborative environment.  Author Morten T Hansen, in his book Collaboration, points out that “most leaders believe that company wide collaboration is essential for successful strategy execution’”. 

When operating under stressful time constraints (such as an Olympic quadrennial), this can be an especially challenging proposition.  Like many successful team-sport coaches, the successful leader must convince the individuals in the organisation that they will be better served to operate as a group, and not as a bunch of individuals.  When team or group members have an emotional connection to a previous leader, style, or regime, this is especially difficult.  An example is the difficulty that Andre Villas Boas had with an experienced group of John Terry-led Chelsea players that were not willing to buy into the new leader’s philosophy.    And conversely, this is often theorized to be the greatest strength of Jose Mourinho - the ability to get his group of individuals to perform as a TEAM.  

Social psychologist and author, Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion, states that “self-interested employees are far more interested in looking good and getting promoted than in helping the company”.  Instead, leaders need to build a collaborative environment by employing a transformational leadership style. He explains “an organization that takes advantage of (collaboration) can activate pride, loyalty, and enthusiasm among its employees and then monitor them less closely. This approach to leadership...generates more social capital—the bonds of trust that help employees get more work done at a lower cost...employees work harder, have more fun, and are less likely to quit or to sue the company...they are truly team players”  

And in fact, according to Haidt, this is how we evolved: he describes a multi-level theory of natural selection that argues that we evolved at multiple levels simultaneously:  “individuals compete with individuals, and that competition rewards selfishness—which includes some forms of strategic cooperation (even criminals can work together to further their own interests). But at the same time, groups compete with groups, and that competition favors groups composed of true team players—those who are willing to cooperate and work for the good of the group, even when they could do better by slacking, cheating, or leaving the group”.  The most successful team is the one in which individuals can cooperate, work truly as a team, and divide labor.  Selection at lower level becomes less important, while selection at the higher levels (group/team) becomes more powerful.  The teams with the most individuals who employ this thinking are always the most successful.  

Haidt argues that a great turning point in human evolutionary history was when members of a social group began to share an understanding of how things ought to be done.  This concept is known as shared intentionality - and when any individual violated these shared expectations, there were common and negative feelings from the remainder of the group; it is this “peer pressure” that led to our cumulative culture, teamwork, and division of labour (traits not shared by our common ancestors).

But it’s not a perfect system.  So-called ‘free-riders’ (those 'selfish' individuals within the team who are unwilling to cooperate and work for the good of the team - a concept explained from an evolutionary perspective by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene) still exist.  It is hoped that by creating a truly cooperative and collaborative workplace or team, these selfish individuals will be shamed by their co-workers/teammates into either stepping up and joining in, or taking their behaviors elsewhere.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and many a power struggle exists in both corporations and sports teams.  

So-called Management Consultants have been increasingly popular with businesses now for over a decade, and exist almost solely for this purpose: to help create better management practices, and to foster more efficient and collaborative relationships. As many management theories exist as consultants, but Haidt’s recommendations are instructive, as they have an evolutionary basis:
  1. Create a culture that emphasizes similarities, shared goals, and interdependencies
  2. Increase synchronous behavior - perhaps by increasing socializing
  3. The adoption of intra-business rivalries between teams within the group - not between  individuals.  “...soldiers don’t risk their lives for their country or for the army; they do so for their buddies in the same squad or platoon”.  Conversely, pitting individuals against each other destroys trust and morale (Haidt).

To this list, I would add at least one more. I personally feel it is imperative that a good leader accept responsibility for results - good or bad - and challenge his team to do the same.  

This is what Charles Van Commonee has done through his four years at UK Athletics.  He challenged - often publicly - his team to be better.  To do better.  To perform better.  He required, nor accepted any excuses.  And - in holding himself accountable to those same standards, he has decided he must leave.  

“Over and over again in history it has been proven that every single individual can be replaced...every graveyard is full of irreplaceable people” (CvC)


  1. Thanks for pointing out that book and thoughts on leadership.Interesting that 3 of the GB gold medals came from athletes not training centrally.

  2. doesn't mean that Centralisation is not a key to high-performance sport.

    You can't build a successful program - with depth - without centralization. The Federation objectives have to move beyond individual athlete success, and instead focus on sport-wide success: getting as many athletes as possible to within the podium range ultimately increases odds of success at Major Games.

    You can have episodic and individual success in a decentralized model but you can't create program success and long-term performance sustainability.

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