The Leadership Collapse of Manchester United

manchester-united-logoThere is much to learn from sport. Whether you play or support or do both, we have the luxury of peering into the leadership habits of athletes, managers and teams with an arms length magnifying glass to gain a great deal of insight.

You don’t have to like football (soccer) but what has transpired this past year at Manchester United Football Club is a fascinating case study when it comes to leadership.

You may know of Manchester United due to its brand ubiquity. Indeed, Forbes values the club at $3.2 billion, second only to Spanish club Real Madrid United earns almost a billion dollars in merchandise per annum so it’s likely you’ve seen the Red Devils logo adorned to somebody somewhere on the planet. You may know of Manchester United due to its actual sporting success over the past quarter century. Under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson — the team manager between 1986 and 2013 — as well as key chief executives Peter Kenyon and David Gill, the club amassed 38 trophies including thirteen league titles and two European championships.

Of course you may have heard about Manchester United because one David Beckham used to effortlessly swirl free kicks and crosses at the home grounds — Old Trafford — for a period of time. However you have come into contact with the club, your impression is likely one of success.

Since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and the departure of David Gill in 2013, the club has fallen into a tailspin of epic proportions. In fact, it is on the verge of becoming a Harvard Business case study, and not one of the good ones.

A new manager to replace Sir Alex was chosen, but not much has gone right for David Moyes to date. The club sits seventh in Barclay Premier League, a shocking 18 points behind front runners Chelsea. This from the same team that won the league just a few months prior by 11 points over its nearest competitor. Wayne Rooney — their star striker — was embroiled in a debate for much of the season on whether he should remain at the club or move on, causing unnecessary distractions. Critics and analysts suggest Moyes has suffered first year jitters — managing such a prolific club for the first time — but so too those same individuals have stated he has made calamitous tactical mistakes, misguided judgments of the player transfer market, and naïvety in handling (might I suggest leading) the squad.

A new chief executive to replace David Gill was promoted (Ed Woodward) but there isn’t much to report going well on the business side either. The club is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol MANU On May 2, 2013, the stock traded at $19.04 but by February 19, 2014, the stock had dipped to $14.47, a loss of 24 per cent. It has recently gained back a small fraction of those losses but you can be assured many observers (and investors) are looking at the on-field and off-field leadership actions and its implications to United’s market capitalization and shareholder value growth.

The most incredulous aspect of the situation at Manchester United is what I believe is the culmination of a rapid leadership collapse. Take for instance the most recent match where the club entertained their most hated rival — Liverpool Football Club — at their home stadium. Manchester United player Ryan Giggs once stated the Liverpool versus Manchester United fixture is “probably the most famous fixture in English football.” The final result was 3-0 in favour of Liverpool, as humiliating a defeat if there ever was if you’re in the United camp. If you watched the match — and I did — there were signs of the overarching leadership collapse everywhere.

United players were rolling their eyes at one another. Others were giving halfhearted efforts on the pitch. Some were publicly yelling (and blaming) one another. The manager — David Moyes — displayed the body language of defeatism. As the camera panned the crowd and caught ex-manager Sir Alex Ferguson in his seat, the hottest of candles could not have thawed the ice transfixed to his facial expression. The fans themselves looked flummoxed. This was only one match but the leadership collapse at Manchester United Football Club has been in motion and more than obvious since last summer.

What’s the verdict? What might we learn?

  • Never rest on your laurels; competitors are always trying to nip at your heels.
  • Be ferocious with the status quo; don’t accept it … ever.
  • Leadership ought to be collaborative; the forced divide between management & employee is antiquated.
  • Transparency is key; excuses and stories get you nowhere.
  • You’re only as good as an engaged team; apathy & disengagement lead to bad results.
  • Leadership requires vision, strategy and execution; you can’t have one without the other.

Full disclosure: my Grand-Mum gave me a Manchester United Umbro jersey kit when I was five years old. I’ve been supporting the club ever since … even through this jarring leadership crisis.

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