Leadership - the right person at the right time - Business Works
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Leadership - the right person at the right time

Peter Ryding, CEO, DOIT Success System David Moyes’ recent appointment as the manager of Manchester United has probably left him feeling a number of things. Excited, bursting with ideas and probably more than a little scared. However, if he wants to succeed he’ll need to remember this universal fact: if you emulate Alex Ferguson’s leadership style where you work you will probably get fired – and quite rightly so. The confrontational, alpha male, bullying style is simply not a recipe for success in modern business.

That said, Ferguson is undoubtedly the most successful figure in British football for the last 25 years. How come?

leadership and leadership style are situational

Well, this dilemma is explained by the fact that leadership and leadership style are situational. So many people would say that Churchill’s tenacity and dogged determination to hold out against Hitler was key to Britain’s survival. Equally, Gandhi’s pacifist approach in India successfully freed his country from the British Empire. Would Churchill’s bulldog spirit have succeeded in India? Would Gandhi’s non-aggressive approach have worked against the very real threat of invasion by Nazi Germany in WWII? No.

Each was successful in their own situation, mainly because they each had a natural style that suited the situation. That's why they succeeded and why they are each rightly seen as heroes who achieved extraordinary things. If they hadn’t had the right style, they would not have succeeded and would not be heroic figures of the twentieth century.

Fundamentally, we are not human doings, we are human beings and it’s too hard to consistently be someone who we are not. While behavior and unhelpful habits can be changed and people can become more positive and more successful through conscious thought and focused effort, our core make up is pretty much set by the age of 21. After that, the real skill is putting ourselves into situations where our style matches the needs.

Fergie did exactly that. Maybe with some good fortune although, as Gary Player said, "The harder I practice - the luckier I get". It’s worth remembering that it even took Fergie several years before his phenomenal track record really took off.

Over time his increasingly self-confident approach delivered the results and his fearless abrasive style became accepted as what’s needed to deliver the extraordinary results of Manchester United over the last 20 years. In the face of those achievements no one either wanted, or perhaps was brave enough, to tinker with his tough uncompromising style. The situation he found himself in was the one where his style worked.

Does that mean he should become a role model for leaders elsewhere? No. For three key reasons:

  1. You always need to be authentic to your own leadership style. Learn from others by all means – yet always be yourself.
  2. Unless you are a critical part of running the most successful company in the world in your sector – as Manchester United is – you will be much more dispensable than Fergie. Mirroring or emulating such acknowledged bad behavior won’t make you admired, it’ll get you fired.
  3. Aggressively intimidating and bullying your stakeholders – as Fergie did with players, officials, journalists and many more – will give you a reputation as being difficult and painful to do business with. Over time people will seek out alternatives.

However, there are some things we can all learn from Fergie:

  1. His ability to build passionate desire in his team to play and to win. The lesson here is to ensure that everyone that matters has a compelling 'what’s in it for me?'
  2. His total focus on achieving clearly defined outcomes, in his case – silverware. This shows us that we need to ensure that there is total clarity on what the outcome is and how to recognize it once it’s achieved.
  3. His focus upon putting in place the critically important things needed to succeed. For Fergie, these included assembling a world leading squad, instilling and maintaining a phenomenal team spirit and total intolerance of anything less than world class. This highlights the need to identify the 20% of things that will deliver 80% of the results and focus ruthlessly upon them.
  4. His ability to get everyone, from strikers, to goal keepers, to physios, to nutritionists, even to boot boys, to take pride in taking actions at the right time and getting things right first time. Quite simply, Fergie fans wishing to emulate his success need to plan the work and then work the plan.

a set of actions that suit the situation, delivered in an authentic way

That is the consistent characteristic of successful leaders throughout history – even if they didn’t know they were doing it. Churchill did it. Gandhi did it. Fergie did it. Anyone can do it. Leadership is not a gift from God, it’s simply a set of actions that suit the situation you are in, delivered in an authentic way.

The four critical elements are the desire, the outcome, the vitally important things that need to be achieved and to take action – which uses the acronym 'D O I T'. I have been using this acronym for over 20 years and it has never failed to bring about transformational success whether it’s rescuing businesses from bankruptcy, unblocking multi-billion pound technology projects or mentoring a leader with a really tough job. The kind of job David Moyes now has as he takes over at Manchester United.

If Moyes wants to succeed he needs to steer the club from the phenomenal achievements of the Fergie 26 years to adapt to a new ‘success curve’. These are the curves that chart the cycle of success, usually in the shape of an elongated 'S' that represents the natural lifespan of almost everything in life, whether they’re products, industries or even marriages. Initially the curve dips down, requiring a major investment of time, effort and money, then it works well for a period as it rises up to the right and then naturally starts to decline and dips down again at the end. The trick is to start investing in the next success curve using profits, benefits or whatever worked well from the previous one before it’s too late.

Moyes needs to help Manchester United adapt to the new curve with his own brand of leadership, but he shouldn’t be worrying about mimicking Fergie’s personality as he does so. Successful leadership doesn’t have to be about personality. Leaders have to be inspiring and strong and yet in the modern world people also look for some element of humility. That doesn’t mean weak – no one wants that in a leader – but the ability to occasionally say 'I don’t know' or 'I can do with some help' or even, as Tony Blair resolutely refused to say 'sorry'. Unfortunately, that's why he will always be remembered as arrogant.

The final challenge for Moyes is that he’ll not only have to help Manchester United adapt to a new success curve, he will have to do it under the shadow of Fergie still being around on the club’s board. That means stamping his own leadership style on the club will be more difficult and yet more crucial to establish from the start. Whenever anyone switches to a new success curve there are two critical steps. First he’ll need to make the transition. Secondly, he’ll need to ensure that everyone is pulling together according to the new rules and new ways of working. Moyes’ rules and Moyes’ ways of working.

That's a big task and while I don’t envy him, I really encourage him to do it.

Peter Ryding is an award winning turnaround CEO, and top executive coach to other CEOs. He founded the DOIT Success System to give people around the world the power to succeed. To find out more go to: www.DOITSuccessSystem.com

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