Gary Bailey, goalkeeper for Manchester United on 373 occasions from the late 70’s to the mid 80’s, and also for England before retiring with a knee injury, had the privilege of playing for two of the most successful football managers of all time: Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Robson.  Having retired early, Gary is one of those rare footballers who pursued an academic career, finishing a Bsc in Physics while playing for Man Utd, and an MBA from Henley in Oxford thereafter, with a focus on leadership.  He has combined his academic studies with the real world examples of highly successful football managers to produce a fun-filled and highly informative programme on leadership, called LEAD.  TomorrowToday is pleased to be able to collaborate with Gary in bringing the LEAD programme to our clients. Click here for more details.

Football and Leadership

With the recession having placed leaders under greater pressure than ever, the world of football offers insights into how to handle this problems, and also how to plan for a great future. That football is a pressure business is not in doubt – nearly one third of all premiership managers get the sack (or resign) in the course of a season.  How do those managers cope with producing weekly results (as opposed to quarterly or annual results!) and what skills do they use to motivate their teams?

The top football managers in the world are able to withstand these pressures, and produce results time and time again.  Sir Alex, Sir Bobby and many other top managers such as Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez and Mark Hughes have at least four leadership characteristics in common.  Even if you are not a football fan, the principles are still easy to follow, and the business comparisons obvious and powerful.

The simple memory tool is the word LEAD – it stands for the following 4 focus areas of top leaders:

Level 5 leadership

From the excellent research book on leadership “Good to Great”  by Jim Collins, it is clear that the most successful leaders managed to combine two special features side by side: Professional Will and Personal Humility. This might seem simple but in reality is extremely difficult – those leaders who are strong and determined are rarely humble, and those leaders who are humble and show great care for those around them are rarely tough and firm minded. Can the two be found together? Absolutely yes, and the best example is that of Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Gary remembers meeting Sir Alex the morning after they won the treble in 1999 and gushing to the Man Utd manager about what a great achievement this was and how wonderful Sir Alex is. All Sir Alex said was “ Gary, weren’t the players magnificent last night!” He is tough and yet incredibly humble, and when you listen to him talk on radio or TV, you hardly ever hear him talk about himself and his achievements.  Contrast that with Jose Mourinho! Does that make the “Special One” a poor leader?  Not in the short term, but perhaps when it comes to building long term success, which is often the true test of any leader’s ability. When Jose was at Chelsea, he created a strong belief among the players in himself as opposed to the club.  When he left, the team fell apart , and the new leader, Phil Scolari had an extremely tough time getting the players to play for him.  It took another management change, a lot more money and a few more years to get Chelsea to the top again.  When Sir Alex departs, he will leave in place a system that will ensure the next manager has the best chance of being successful: now that is a true leader in action!

Gary learnt personally about professional will and personal humility the hard way. He was one of the youngest keepers ever to play in an FA cup final back in 1979, and at the tender age of 20, he was blamed for Arsenal’s winning goal in the dying minutes of a 3-2 defeat.  Gary says that accepting some blame for the result taught him to be strong and show professional will, and also left him no choice but to be humble.  These lessons were reinforced by excellent managers in a way that was affirming and growing for Gary.  It is how you deal with the best of times and the toughest of times that ultimately will show whether you have Level 5 leadership.

Emotional Intelligence (EI)

This is probably one of the most talked about skills needed in leadership. Many of the world’s top business gurus believe that is far more important that IQ, especially the higher up the business ladder you climb.  At te simplest level, EI is about Self Awareness and Empathy.

Self Awareness allows you to know who you are in relation to the world.  Empathy allows you to connect to others, and can be broken down into 4 steps:  Observing, Evaluating, Feeling and Responding.

Sir Alex is superb when it comes to Empathy with his players – he has an uncanny ability to observe their behaviour and to be aware of their emotional state.  This means that he can pick players who are at the top of their game, and rest those who are showing any form of stress. Another great example of EI is Sir Bobby Robson – he also had an amazing ability to understand players and their needs, and always acted in a caring and supportive manner.  Great leaders take account of emotional, personal, psychological and spiritual issues in their teams, going way beyond merely looking for performance outputs.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI)

This is also a hot topic in business schools, and simply put, it’s a modern approach to being positive.  The days of fear-based leadership are over for the simple reason that it is not sustainable – people will work under threats and punitive measures for a certain period only, and then they will either decrease in performance, or just leave the business. AI is the way to create a fun, positive and interactive environment where everyone can prosper. It doesn’t mean you don’t get tough when you have to, but it does mean that you do it in a way that doesn’t break worker’s spirits.

Here’s an example: you have 95% customer satisfaction and the leader focuses on the other 5%. Imagine how you would feel if you were amongst the staff when this happened. The more positive approach is to focus on the 95% success, and then to come back to the 5% and see how that can be improved upon. What AI also promotes is involving staff in the solving of problems, and this is more easily achieved when the environment is positive and conducive to input and ideas.

Modern day football managers have become far more positive about their players than the 80’s era of screaming, threatening bosses – players simply wouldn’t accept that today. An emphasis on talent has been part of the shift, but another reason is further research into human motivation.  We know that people respond to positive affirmation much better than threats.  This is a lesson many corporate leaders need to learn.  Certainly Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s long-time manager, comes across as an intelligent, caring manager, who focuses on the positives, and Mark Hughes also has shows the same excellent qualities.


The pressure is huge these days to achieve immediate results.  In football and business, this is no different. However, if you want to become a great leader you have to plan for a great future, and not be completely obsessed with day by day activities. Sir Alex proved the wisdom of this approach when he scoured the country for the best talent for his academy in the late 80’s – not easy to do when you are busy trying to survive in the top league.  But he did it, and when Man Utd started their awesome winning streak in the mid 90’s, the team was built on the players who came out of that academy – Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Neville brothers, Butt, etc.  So easy to say – build for the future – but difficult to do.  And the main reason it’s difficult to do is that leaders have less and less time to focus on the future, and need all their time just to survive the present. So how do you “create” time in order to be able to build the team of the future and grow yourself at the same time?

According to Harvard Business School research, the simplest way to “make” time, is to increase your energy so that you get more done and have more time for future thinking.  The research suggests four areas to increase your energy.  First is your BODY – are you eating correctly and are you exercising.  Failure to do both lowers your energy levels and makes you less productive.  So even if you can’t get to the gym, do your exercises at home before you go to work, and then cut down on the coffee and biscuits, and replace it with water and nuts or dried fruit – the benefits will be quick and very noticeable. The next area to increase your energy is your SPIRIT – if, for example, helping people is something that lifts your spirit, then use your tea breaks to support someone who is facing difficult times, and that will lead to an increase in your energy levels. Next is MIND – use the latest technology to manage your life.  One suggestion, for example, is to switch off your mobile 5 minutes from home (pick a regular landmark to remind you) and then focus on your spouse and family and what they have been doing with their day – that way you enter the home in a positive and caring manner, and not busy arguing with someone on the phone. The fourth area to increase your energy is EMOTION – if you get upset then you are likely to say and do things you regret and that will take an inordinate amount of time to rectify (and sometimes you can never rectify them!). So watch your response, find out what your buttons are that get you upset, and if that happens, then breathe deeply to calm yourself, or just simply excuse yourself and go to the bathroom, and recover your composure.  This brings us back to Emotional Intelligence.

LEAD with confidence, and ensure success

These four principles can be applied by any leader at any level of their organisation.  Each of them has the added benefit and challenge of being fairly easy to understand at first glance, but can take a lifetime to master fully.  Looking at this issue through the eyes of a football legend brings an interesting perspective that makes a real impact, too.  In a World Cup year, this is an ideal opportunity to think differently about leadership and what it takes to be a leader in the new world of work.

If you want find out more or book Gary for a presentation or workshop, please contact one of the TomorrowToday team in your region:  see

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