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Brian Clough: Leader of the pack

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23rd Apr 2009
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IMAGENAMEWith the release of The Damned United, Brian Clough is back in the news again. Paul Ashley examines what lessons business leaders can learn from one of the most charismatic and successful football managers the beautiful game has ever witnessed.

"I certainly wouldn't say I'm the best manager in the business, but I'm in the top one." Brian Clough

On the face of it, Brian Clough defies all leadership models. After all, where in the manual does it say deck your star performers (Roy Keane, allegedly), slap your customers and routinely embarrass and humiliate your chairman? Or, for that matter, telling your best performing team (Leeds) to "throw all your medals in the bin - you won them by cheating".

Photo of Paul Ashley"On the face of it, Brian Clough defies all leadership models. After all, where in the manual does it say deck your star performers (Roy Keane, allegedly), slap your customers and routinely embarrass and humiliate your chairman?"

But, there are lessons for business leaders to be found in Clough's successes - and his failures. In fact, in some respects, he was actually a model leader, understanding that he needed to vary his leadership style to fit the situation if he was to achieve results. While compromise is not a term that one naturally associates with Brian Clough the reality is that he didn't just slap his players and fans - he kissed them too. Most of the time he was a master of understanding when a player - or a team - needed a 'kick up the backside' and when they needed an arm round their shoulder and a reminder that they had more talent in their big toe than the whole of the opposition team put together.

Brian Clough as visionary...
Research by Hay Group has identified six styles of leadership and, if we take a step back, it's actually fairly easy to see Clough demonstrating a fairly wide range of these leadership styles. Coaching? Definitely. Pacesetting? Certainly. Visionary? Maybe the best in the business when we consider his ability to inspire struggling second-tier teams to believe that they could win the Championship or European Cup. Directive? Yes, when needed. Democratic? Well, less so, but how many times did he stand back silently and tell his team to sort it out for themselves? (famously at the FA Cup Final at the start of extra time). Affiliative? This could be a blind spot when we consider not just the Leeds debacle but also the unnecessary and damaging rift with assistant manager Peter Taylor.

Of course, Clough also oozed and epitomised self-confidence. Every leadership approach emphasises how vital this is and we all need to maintain our self-confidence during current adversity for our businesses and our teams. Many leaders need and find a 'coping mechanism' or two to help them maintain self-belief through the inevitable knockbacks. Sadly, Clough's coping mechanism seems to have primarily been alcohol, which perhaps robbed us of the even greater successes he could have achieved as his career matured.

"Clough also oozed and epitomised self-confidence. Every leadership approach emphasises how vital this is and we all need to maintain our self-confidence during current adversity for our businesses and our teams."

reating a strong performance climate
One area where Clough can be seen to be an instructive example is in developing strong performance 'climate' within his teams. Research shows that this is key for leaders who get results. At the Hay Group we define six dimensions of team climate – rewards, responsibility, team commitment, flexibility, clarity and standards. The last two are the most important - and on these he was clearly off the scale.

On team commitment and rewards we can perhaps see a difference between his successes with Derby and Forest and failure at Leeds. At both Derby and Forest he was able to draw on the fact that he took over poorly performing teams (bottom of second tier), building team spirit on the prospect and realisation of success itself as well as providing tangible team rewards. Without this at Leeds, he fell back on a pacesetting style: 'you're not good enough'. This had a negative effect on the reward dimension and only built team commitment in so much as being united against the rejection by their leader.

Such was Brian Cough's leadership ability, it could be argued that his biggest failure was in not taking his natural understanding of situational leadership far enough. And this doesn't just mean adapting his success at Derby to the totally different situation he was always going to encounter at Leeds but one of the most challenging situations that any leader could encounter - the FA.

The greatest England manager we never had
If Clough was the greatest England manager we never had it was because he effectively turned the job down. Even back then it was impossible for an England manager to slap players and fans and humiliate the hierarchy. The subtext was 'that is a situation and organisational climate I cannot adapt to - it can only work if the outside world adapts to me'.

So, was Brian Clough justified in saying, "I certainly wouldn't say I'm the best manager in the business, but I'm in the top one." Possibly. But only in some situations. The best leaders in the world can perform in all conditions and ultimately deserve more recognition for the sheer hard work that gets them there than the maverick leadership of Brian Clough.

Paul Ashley is the director at the Hay Group

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