Should we measure greatness by this?

What makes a manager great? Is it the results that they bring? Is it the spirit they foster within their team? Is it their ability to get the best from different characters and capabilities? Opinions vary, but all of these are certainly included and debated by all those that have written, blogged, presented and tweeted about leadership and management.

I like to think I’m a bit of a student of leadership and management, especially around performance, but specifically around longevity. How is it that some managers can constantly achieve results and success no matter who they bring to their team? People come and go in teams, that’s a fact of life and this coming and going will impact on the performance of any team, yet the great managers seem to be able to navigate through these times of change and continue to achieve greatness.

One thing that I have started to look at though more recently is not the performance from changes in team personal but more with the changes to the managers. Surely if they are truly great, when they decide to move on, their teams will continue to perform at the very highest level? Because if they don’t, doesn’t that mean that it was more about the ability of the manager rather than the ability of the team. If this was the case, can they really be regarded as great?

Consider Sir Alex Ferguson. Widely considered one of the greatest managers in football. He won 49 trophies in his career as a manager. Starting at St. Mirren in Scotland where he won the Scottish First Division, then onto Aberdeen where he won 10 trophies between 1979 and 1986. He then went to Manchester United and by the time of his retirement in 2013 he won a further 38 trophies. Even if you don’t like football you can’t help but impressed by that. But what happened when he left?

Sir Alex left St. Mirren in 1978 and they didn’t win the league again for 22 years and any another significant trophy after his departure for 10 years. Similarly Aberdeen have never again won the league and didn’t win another trophy for 4 years. More recently Manchester United have gone from winning 38 trophies in just 26 years, including 13 league titles to finishing 7th, 4th and 5th in the seasons without him. Compare that to the 14 top 3 finishes in 11 years previously.

Controversial as it may be, I don’t consider this the mark of greatness. There are also many examples in business. Consider Sony. They lost market leadership in electronics, a position they had held for many years when their founder Akio Morita stepped down in 1994. Disney suffered 20 years of decline after Walt Disney passed away in 1966. But you can’t compare a football manager to an electronics legend, nor the founder of Disney. But you can compare him to other football managers.

Liverpool Football Club won 43 trophies over a 32 year period. Very similar to the record of Sir Alex. The difference is they achieved this remarkable run of success with 4 different managers. These 4 managers followed directly on from each other, one handing over to the other. Firstly Bill Shankly, then Bob Paisley, then Joe Fagan and finally Kenny Dalglish. All but Shankley were able to carry on the work of their predecessor without a blip. How?

Simple. The great leaders embed their values into the fabric of their organisation and groom multiple generations of leaders to follow in their footsteps.

Here’s how they do it;

  1. Great managers build trust and loyalty as a culture that is greater than the regard they themselves are held in.
  2. Great managers build the confidence the team has in their future successor.
  3. The successor is given multiple opportunities to deal with challenges and contribute to the strategy.
  4. Doubt is replaced by asking for, offering and giving help.
  5. People’s commitment to performance is trained, developed and honed to perfection.

In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes this as Level 5 leadership, a paradoxical combination of professional will and personal humility.

In the end I suppose it’s what you define as great that counts. If it’s trophies, then Sir Alex may be classed as great. But in my opinion the very definition of greatness is the ability to continue getting the amazing success long after you’ve moved on, That’s a true great, maybe you know one?

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