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Southampton Football Club – Leadership strategy

Southampton Football Club
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Southampton Football Club – Leadership strategy

Southampton FC are at it again. Another manager sacked through poor results on the pitch. The latest manager to be shown the door, Mark Hughes [1] had a 13.6% win rate in his eight months as manager. This, after successfully winning a tight relegation battle last season. Things clearly needed to be changed then, but seemingly not enough was changed. So what’s the real issue at Southampton? It’s a club known for its SIS strategy – Sign, Improve & Sell that has previously sourced promising players and fed them to larger clubs at a profit, for years.

This strategy has kept the club’s pockets lined and liquid. When it worked well, the club were higher up the table. Today, they are desperate for a win, so expansive football is rather more difficult. Players then, are asked and expected to minimise risks. This affects their individual marketability. For some, it’s the reason they joined the Saints in the first place. [3] As recently as the 2016-17 season, the club finished in eighth position.

Wherafter, the manager was sacked and in mid-season, the club sold a key defender for an estimated £75 million. Two more managers followed, before Hughes was hired to help with the relegation battle last year. Why are Southampton FC now in the relegation zone before this Christmas? What is going wrong? My theory is that there is a crisis of leadership. Their leaderships strategy impacts on the tactics available to the players on the pitch.

Assuming that the players are good enough for a mid table position in the Premier league, some may argue that they are not, leadership qualities to lift these players are not visible to the public or pundits. [2] Who are the Owners? Who are the management and what is their current focus?

Southampton Football Club

[3] The Academy is reputedly the backbone of the club’s development. Recent products of the club’s youth system include England internationals Adam Lallana, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wayne Bridge and Luke Shaw, Wales winger Gareth Bale and Northern Ireland defender Chris Baird. Currently, the highest transfer fees (£19.2 million) paid for a player, is now out on loan and the highest fees received, £75 million. Currently, the squad has nine defenders, including wingbacks, without anyone resembling the abilities of the player they sold for the record fee.

It’s well understood that the Saints prefer to buy bargains, develop them and sell at a considerable profit. That said, what if at this time of the season, they are invested heavily in the development phase of players careers and insufficiently in players with experience to defend their goal? Forwards in the Premier League are now notoriously large, athletic and quick. Defending against them, is a specialist skill. In the 14 games played so far this season, Southampton FC have won one game and drawn 6. They have lost 7, scored 12 and conceded 26. With 4 clean sheets, the club conceded 2.6 goals per game in the remaining 10. Defence is clearly an issue.

Ralph Krueger,[5] is the Chairman of the club. Canadian born, Author, Coach, Scout and a German Bundesliga player. He is known for his involvement in the World Economic Forum. Since 2011, he has been a Member, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership. Leadership? Saints have an expert in their ranks. Time for Ralph to shine. Time to pull out all the tools in his toolkit.

Right now, from 10 defenders to select from – to stop the tide of goals, not one has played in all the league games this season. The highest is 12, 7 and then 6 games. The remaining 7 defenders, have 16 appearances between them. An average of 2.2 each. A pressing problem that leadership needs to solve urgently. Solidify the defence, to stop goals that lose games and points. If 38 points are needed to stay in the Premier League this season, 29 are still needed in the remaining 24 games. Drawing most games will send the team down. A winning streak is required. What should the leaders in the club do?

Seemingly, new talent is primarily sourced from Heads of Scouting in France, Germany and Poland The Academy is should also provide some options. The next shop window to buy new players, opens in January. Kelvin Davies [6] has played for many years as Premier League goalkeeper, for Sunderland and Southampton. His knowledge and experience is vital in the games running up to Christmas. The Saints will face two top table clubs [7] (Spurs & Arsenal) and two opponents in the relegation zone (Cardiff & Huddersfield) – West Ham and Manchester City follow. Hopefully the next manager will be settled in and the coaching team stabilised by then. The next four games are clearly crucial, if Southampton aim to be out of the relegation zone by Christmas.

Let’s talk about the Leadership Strategy that the Southampton first team ought to follow. The current team captain, Steven Davis has made 2 appearances this season. Here’s a place to start. If the official team leader is mostly off the pitch, then it’s time to consider someone else. No matter the reason for his absence, experience or popularity. You can’t have the person responsible for players on the pitch, mostly off the pitch. Talking of players, more than a third of the squad are from England and Ireland. Maybe consider this, when hiring managers and developing a team culture. Language is key to communication. Language limitations make communicating to individuals that need to find peak performances every week while under pressure, difficult. [11] [12]

This strong contingent of English speaking players is quite unlike the situation in derby played in Liverpool this weekend. In this game, only one player on the pitch was born in the UK. If leadership involves communicating effectively, then a common language and a strong team culture is an advantage if results are needed quickly.

Sir Alex Ferguson [8] writes and talks a lot about leadership from his experiences in football. He especially mentions a few key areas he believed, in regards leadership in football. Let’s consider some of them them below, regards Southampton. Which of these key areas are already in place, so that a Southampton FC leadership strategy can be successfully implemented?

Strong captain: “On the field, the person responsible for making sure the 11 players acted as a team was the club captain. Even though I imagine some people think this is a ceremonial position, it is far from that. Yes, there are elements of symbolism to the role, because the captain is the man who always gets to lift the trophy–but I only ever wanted a leader, rather than someone who might look good on top of a cake. It is a critical decision. I was always a strong personality, and when I selected people to transmit my intentions to others, I looked for the same quality in them.”

Currently, the Southampton captain hardly plays. Change the captain?

Inspiration: “Much of leadership is about extracting that extra 5 percent of performance that individuals did not know they possessed.”

Currently, with 36% of the seasons games played, at least 8 more games need to won, another 5 drawn to remain in the league next season. Seemingly, the club culture is not to spend top dollar on influential players, so more must be done with the players in the squad. This is a big ask for the new manager in a competitive league. Maybe the owners need to put their hands in their pockets to lift the existing squad?

Control: “I’ll plead guilty to having a thirst for winning and being fixated on maintaining complete control but–in my book–those are requisites for effective leadership. There’s a big difference between control and power. The leader of any group usually has considerable power, but it’s something that can be easily abused. One of the side-effects of the abuse of power is when someone leads by fear of intimidation.”

The new manager must get this balance between control and power sorted early, to get the dressing room to work for him. There is of course time pressure, no prospect of new players and no track record of wins. Performances have been good at times, but a winning culture is absent.

Delegation: “Working with, and through, others is by far the most effective way to do things–assuming, of course, that they understand what you want and are keen to follow. My job was to set very high standards. It was to help everyone else believe they could do things that they didn’t think they were capable of. It was to chart a course that had not been pursued before. It was to make everyone understand that the impossible was possible. That’s the difference between leadership and management.”

This is one of the biggest challenges for the managerial staff. Leadership by example is not instant and at Southampton there is little time for any margin of error.

Decision-making: “Effective delegation depends on the ability of others to make decisions. Some people can make decisions, others cannot. It just doesn’t work if you are congenitally hesitant and allow things to linger in a state of suspension.”

The new management team will need to immediately create a culture of responsibility with authority on the field, for players to make decisions that positively affect the game on the field. If leadership fails to inspire and empower the squad, then things will only get a lot worse before they start getting better.

Implement: “The trick lies not in memorising some list of the rudiments of leadership (which any intelligent 14 year old can do) but, rather, having the stamina, knowledge and skill to consistently implement them.”

No doubt the outgoing management tried hard, but were unsuccessfully to implement a means for leadership to blossom on the pitch. Having won only a single game, there is a history already of 13 games being unsuccessful. This culture and negative believe must be turned around. Will the Southampton leadership, have the stamina, knowledge and skill to do this?

Expectations: “Understanding what is possible, setting realistic expectations and communicating them clearly enough to bring a team along with you, especially in a setting where everyone wants quick results, is one of the hardest leadership skills. It is easy to brim with enthusiasm, establish unattainable goals and leave everyone feeling deflated if the targets aren’t achieved.”

The pressure is on. The results required are onerous and the bar is high. Experience is best to manage expectations. Southampton FC needs a strategy that leads them to the 38 points in May. No fancy footwork, no risky business. They need a systematic process that leads them to a winning streak or two.

Finally, from Sir Alex, “It is much easier to endure all the setbacks, reversals and frustrations of management when you deeply enjoy your work–a sense that most ordinary managers rarely, if ever, experience.” The question is then, will Southampton be able to attract a manager with a lust for life? A zest for dealing with the ongoing frustrations, with an attitude similar to Jurgen Klopp or Claudio Ranieri who lift not only the players but the fans too?

My impression is that that the 7 elements of Leadership that Sir Alex mentions above, are not as yet clearly evident within the club culture. Leadership at the club must change this quickly to provide a basis soon for stability and success in troubled times.

Then, if you look at the 10 Principles of Strategic Leadership [9] as discussed by Strategy + Business, the one glaring issue that besets the Saints, is that they unlike most other clubs, do not have a ‘face’ for the club. A publicity person that is always available to promote the club’s profile in the media. Think of other clubs like, Liverpool, Manchester United / City or Leicester. They all have one or more faces that do their cheerleading. This person or people could be from management, players or even supporters club fans. At Saints, there is no one on or off the field. Manager Mark Hughes, for all his abilities was the antithesis of a cheerleader to give fans, support staff, pundits and players some belief.

Strategic leadership focus on change, of lifting their peoples performance to achieving better results. Evolution and creativity and development is expected to be ongoing. Southampton need to identify and attract a few of these to drive the change that needs to be implemented as a matter of urgency. The Chairman should use his experience and acumen to change the club culture now, more than ever. Rally the troops Ralph. Lead the way!

  1. What do you think should be the elements of Southampton Football Club Leadership Strategy, going forward?
  2. Where do you think the organisational structure needs to change and who should be appointed to the new posts?
  3. Where is innovation and creativity required to lift the team culture and belief to start a winning streak?
  4. Should Southampton be looking for a manager at this time, with the profile and experience of someone like Ralph Hasenhüttl to manage the players? If so, why? If not, why not?

Your comments and experiences would be appreciated below. This way, we build and clarify the real strategy story.

Here are some links below, numbered and referenced in the narrative above. They are designed to ignite your thinking. Please add your comments below and more valuable sources if you like.

[1] Mark Hughes sacked [2] Who are the owners?
[3] Club background [4] Match stats
[5] Ralph Krueger [6]Kelvin Davies
[7] Fixtures [8] Alex Ferguson : Leading
[9] Strategic Leadership [10] Find your leaders
[11] Is Ralph the one? [12] Ralph Hasenhüttl

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