Although the interpretation would be mistaken, these don’t sound like the words of either a successful or an ambitious individual. Yet they came from the mouth of Jose Mourinho, one of football’s most iconic managers, describing his brief playing career in the Portuguese second division. Not a man renowned for modesty, his self-awareness is not lacking: his greater abilities lay elsewhere. And whether we are fans of the game or not, football offers insights into an issue with which the sport is far from the only profession to struggle: the transition from expert practitioner to leader.
As in so many areas of life, there is a tendency – despite ample prior evidence to the contrary – to believe that highly specific skills are a guarantee of leadership success: accordingly, great players are frequently offered high profile management jobs. Yet while a deep love of the game can probably be taken for granted amongst these appointees – why else accept a senior role in a profession with such a high turnover at senior levels? – it is not with the football that a successful manager must demonstrate a winning way. His – or, very rarely, her – skill is with the team.
Mourinho’s break into his managing career came not from a spectacular display in studded boots, but from his role as a translator and coach to Sir Bobby Robson. It was not the young Jose’s ability on the pitch that impressed, Robson later recalling “And to think he was just a schoolteacher when I met him.” Indeed for many, the key to successful transition was not their ability as a player, but a spell in a role that provides a firmer foundation for managerial life: coaching. Carlos Alberto Parreira may have led Brazil to World Cup victory in 1994, but his professional backstory was as a fitness coach. Arsene Wenger’s career on the pitch did not glitter, but he spent his final playing years training as a coach, gaining a manager’s diploma and learning English.
A very different example – a hugely prolific goal scorer whose playing career was ended by injury – is provided by Brian Clough, a man who clearly understood that a forced change of role meant a voluntary change of focus. There are probably few quotes on the expert to leader transition as pithy as his:
“Some people think you can take football boots off and put a suit on. You can’t do that.”
And what is true of football boots is equally true of lab coats, safety goggles or hard-hats. It is not the ends to which these essential items of equipment are put that the manager must know and understand, but the people who inhabit them. And it is not themselves on whom they must focus their sense of responsibility, but others. The manager’s role is not to score the winning goal, but to inspire the players who make that goal achievable. As the Daily Telegraph’s obituary of Clough remarked:
“Probably Clough’s greatest asset as a manager was his ability to coax players, sure of their own mediocrity, to greatness.”
Perhaps there are those who, eager to reassure themselves the difference between expertise and leadership is trifling, take comfort in a familiar quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach.” It is probable, however, that they have never tried teaching. While subject matter expertise is a given, a good teacher’s ability also rests on other skills. (Behind the author’s photograph on the jacket of many an expert academic text sits the unseen image of an editor who worked on their manuscript to ensure that it taught the reader as well as leaving them impressed.)
A teacher’s ultimate discipline is not geography or mathematics or physics, but teaching. To master that profession, the subject specialist must learn to manage individual and group behaviour, set goals and developmental challenges, understand the different motivations and anxieties of those in the class, and work to inspire each one of them to be the best they can. We can all smile when we hear Woody Allen tell us that “Those who can’t teach, teach gym”, but what we are admiring is Allen’s genius as a comedian, not his insights into the education process.
If football management does provide a lesson to other professions, it is not that it displays so much evidence of one part of the Peter Principle – that people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence – but to the other, underlying part: that people are so often promoted on the basis of their performance in their current role, not the intended one.
It’s this aspect of the expert to leadership transition that illuminates a different kind of senior responsibility: to make sure that those you appoint are chosen on the right basis, and that you provide whatever support and development they will need to thrive. If excellence in leadership really does start with self-awareness (and we would argue very strongly that it does), this might explain why the words of management guru, Peter Drucker:
“If I put a person into a job and he or she does not perform, I have made a mistake. I have no business blaming that person, no business invoking the “Peter Principle”, no business complaining. I have made a mistake.”
find an echo in another quote from Brian Clough:
“If a chairman sacks the manager he initially appointed, he should go as well.”
Existing senior leaders and those newly appointed from expert roles should share a focus – setting a vision, communicating direction, and building and developing the capabilities of those below them. What distinguishes leaders is not what they get – leadership is not truly measured in remuneration or status – but what they give.
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