7 Leadership lessons from Malky Mackay v Vincent Tan

December 30th, 2013

I am not a football fan but I have been following the events at Cardiff City culminating in the sacking of Malky Mackay with increasing fascination. To me it is interesting as an example (played out in the full glare of the media) of a failure to demonstrate leadership skills at the highest level resulting in deteriorating  relationships between senior leaders and managers.

Here are my thoughts and comments on the recent events; prefaced with a disclaimer that I am relying on the accuracy of the extensive press coverage and making an assumption that a football club should be run in the same way as other businesses. I do accept that both of those prefaces may be incorrect!

  1. Don’t let egos get in the way.  In his study “Good to Great” Jim Collins identified that great companies are not lead by those with hero or celebrity status leaders but by those who demonstrate characteristics of humility and ferocity. As an outsider looking in, it seems to me that Vincent Tan’s ego is getting in the way of doing what is best for the club; he does not appear to have any concern or need for approval from others, does not defer to others who may well know better than him or accept that he can possibly be wrong. All dangerous traits for a leader.
  2. Managers need to be allowed to manage.  The role of Vincent Tan (together with the Board) is to set and communicate the strategy and vision. Presumably in this case the strategy is to remain in the premiership and to operate within certain budgetary constraints. Malky’s job is then to deliver this without interference in terms of the detail and he should have been given the time and space to do so.
  3. Rely on the expertise of others. There is no point in hiring an expert if you do not listen to them and empower them to act as they see fit. If the reports regarding Vincent Tan’s interference including appearances in the dressing room during half time and criticising style of play are true, then this is an example of excessive interference in issues (of which he is alleged to know about as much as I do) that should be left to the experts.
  4. Don’t interfere with the top team. One of  Malky’s senior team members, Iain Moody (Head of Recruitment) was removed by Vincent Tan and replaced with someone said to be a friend of Tan’s son.  Not only is this sort of nepotism going to cause huge issues amongst the senior management team generally, it also seriously undermines Malkay’s authority.
  5. Communicate face to face if there are issues of concern. It has been reported that Vincent Tan sent Malky Mackay an email criticising him about a range of issues such as signings, transfer budgets and style of play and telling him to resign or be sacked. We do not know what came before this and if there are disputes over the budget spend then these clearly need to be tackled. However sending an email of this nature is a sure-fire way to dramatically exacerbate problems; probably to the extent that the relationship can not be retrieved. Where there are serious issues of concern it is imperative that these are tackled quickly, privately and face to face. You cannot settle differences like this by email correspondence; your only chance of doing so is to have an open and honest face to face conversation where all the issues (including any underlying differences) are tackled. The conversation needs to deal with differences of opinion; the “what happened” conversation as well as dealing with the “feelings” and “identity” conversations. Who is right and who is wrong, intentions and blame need to be set aside. and emotions and cultural differences need to be funderstood. For full details of dealing with difficult conversations see http://alisonlove50.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=453&action=edit
  6. Avoid differences being aired in public. It is not quite clear who has leaked what but the fact that the situation has been played out in the public domain is clearly unsettling for the senior management team, players and fans alike. This can not be good for the success of the club and in particular its management. Had the differences been dealt with privately and a quick exit achieved, the fans might still be up in arms but managing the succession would have been far easier with less damage caused.
  7. Don’t underestimate the impact on others. Malky Mckay is clearly hugely popular with fans and well-respected by other football managers and clubs. Either Vincent Tan has massively underestimated this or he does not care; either way this again will not help with succession or with maintaining the long-term success of the club. Whoever does succeed Malky Mckay has a really tough job on his hands.

Malky will no doubt go on to secure one of the top jobs in football management and his reputation is in tact. What remains unclear for the moment is how much this debacle will cost in terms of contractual damages to be paid to Malky, who the successor will be and how this will all impact on the clubs success for this season and beyond.

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