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Does the leader REALLY matter?



A great deal has been written about how leadership is about enabling a team to perform. I have believed for a long time that as a leader “My job is to make your job easier” 

My first manager at my first real job on my first day told me that and I use it as my guiding principle today - how can I make things better for my team?

A good leader can achieve great things with an excellent team.

An outstanding leader can bring a group of people together so that they become more greater than the sum of the parts. It’s an amazing thing to be part of. 

Personally I have been one part of a team that was like that. It’s an amazing experience. That is something to aspire to as a leader - give your team that feeling. 

But even the greatest leaders have to work with the team they’ve got and as my grandmother used to say “You can’t get silk from a sow's ear”. 

So the question is then: Which is more important, the leader or the team?

I don’t claim to have the answer to that question, but it can be useful and interesting to look at examples.

What we need is a situation where the performance of a team is empirically measured, where the make-up of the team was the same (or very close), but the leadership was changed. 

It would seem that sports might be a good place to look. Results are measured and published, and picked over in great detail every Monday morning. 

One great example I can think of is Manchester United. Possibly the most famous football (soccer) team in the UK. 

Before I go any further I would like to say I'm not looking to pour scorn or stoke rivalries. I should point out that I have very little interest in “the beautiful game” I don’t support any team and I have absolutely no idea who won any league in any country in any year.

Accept!

I know that Leicester City won the English Premiership in 2016, that’s only because it shocked everyone, including their fans and cost the bookies a fortune - 1000 to 1 odds will bite you sometimes. 

The only other thing I know - Sir Alex Ferguson was manager of Manchester United for over 25 years, which is an eternity in football manager years. 

A little history for those who have about the same level of football knowledge that I do. Sir Alex was manager between 1986 and 2013. Success wasn't instant. It wasn't even quick, some might argue it was very slow.


In that way they’re like any kind of team with a new leader. It takes a while to get things working the way you want and then brilliance starts. During that time he was building the team. Getting the players he wanted and pulling them together as a team, moulding them to be greater than the sum of the parts.

But, as I said, it was a slow start. 


Alex Ferguson started as team manager in November 1986 and won nothing between 1986 and 1989. Finally in May 1990 they won the FA cup, which was the same trophy the team won the last time they won anything - in 1985. Then thing picked up a bit. The following season they won UEFA Cup Winners Cup. The season after that it was the League Cup, The Super Cup and they were second in the first division. 


The 1992-93 season was the first one for the Premier League. Man United won, and then the flood gates opened. There were only two seasons during Sir Alex’s tenure where they didn’t win a major championship or the Premier League, and usually there were multiple awards and cups for their display cases. They were also never lower than third in the Premiership.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Manchester_United_F.C._seasons


Then Fergie decided to retire. In May 2013 he left Old Trafford as manager. And the stellar fortunes of the club left with him.


In the five completed seasons since then they have never been higher than 2nd in the Premiership, and more usually lower. They have won five trophies, and three in one season. They have had four ‘permanent’ managers and one caretaker. 

At least initially, the team was more or less the same. It was the same group of very talented players, many of whom represented their countries. 

So what happened? From an outsiders point of view it looks like their ‘secret sauce’ was their manager, their leader. 

Does a leader really make that much difference? I believe so. As I said at the beginning, the right leader can turn a group of people into something more than the sum of the parts. Even the most talented players and members of your team need direction, belief and purpose. 

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