A new kind of kind leadership according to the Chocolate Method

Ole Gunnar Solskjær has made some smart moves as manager at Manchester United. In a very short time he has not only managed to turn a shaky team around, but seems to have done something with the whole organisation. There is a lot to learn from his leadership.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær congratulates Jesse Lingard
Ole Gunnar Solskjær congratulates a jubilant Jesse Lingard who scored two goals, after the victory over Cardiff. Photo: Cecilie S. Andersen, VG. Scanpix.

Just before Christmas, “The Special One” disappeared out the door at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho had won what there was to win and is considered one of the world’s best football coaches. Nonetheless, his engagement by and large ended on a sour note. His record with Manchester United distinguished itself from that of his previous positions in that, under his leadership, the club won neither the local league championship nor the Champions League. It may be because his leadership style no longer works.

So, he’s been replaced. We all know about replacements from our own schooldays. They were guys who weren’t taken all that seriously. He or she lacked authority and rarely got the students to listen. It must have been a difficult task for young people looking for a permanent position.

Little inputs – big changes

Ole Gunnar Solskjær is not that kind. He’s the replacement we loved at school - the one who came in with new ideas and created a good atmosphere. That’s what it’s looking like now at Man U. It’s easy to observe what he has created on the track, but information has leaked out to the media that the entire club has experienced a bit of a revival.

The milk chocolate he gave to Kath Phipps when he arrived on his first working day is a mark of that. She’d been the club’s receptionist, at her post for more than 50 years. Part of the culture and community that, as a leader, you have to build up – and depend upon. It’s like that in every workplace – including one of the world’s largest football clubs.  A lot of people have been talking to the media about how the atmosphere has changed.

Whether you’re the manager of a Premier League club or the coach of a level three or four Norwegian side, you need to know a little about the terrain you’re moving around in. The perspective may be too narrow. What you do tactically and technically is important, but you need to expand as a leader to take ownership of the team – and to take everyone in the direction you want. Then you need to know your organisation and some of the mechanisms that characterise it.

Should be part of the education

Here, everyone involved in education, whether in the sporting arena or within the university or college system – has an important job to do. To create good coaches, a good dose of training needs to be administered within the organisation and its management.

I don't know Solskjaer as a trainer – other than that he seems to be a balanced guy who works long term and has a footballing philosophy as his foundation. Theoretically, we could probably find something suitable to describe his leadership style, a dose of team management? human resource management? transformational leadership? value based management? It’s not that important which cubicle Solskjær finds himself in, but it is clear to see that he views management from a broader perspective.

Solskjær is a charismatic leader, just like his predecessor. He has strong convictions about his own beliefs and his own ideals, and he makes an impact on his co-workers. Charismatic leaders are strong and expressive. Solskjær and Mourinho are on different sides inasmuch as the literature refers to “good” and “dangerous” charismatics. The goals of leaders in the latter group are in strengthening their own careers; they are insensitive to the needs of their co-workers and they criticise and censor the opinions of others. 

Build up – don’t break down

As a manager at Manchester United, Mourinho largely set himself in the centre. It was about him and what he has achieved. Insofar as he talked about the players, it was too often in a negative way. Several of them received criticism and were portrayed in a less than flattering way to the public. That not only generates a bad atmosphere in the player group, but it can also create a culture of fear. The players become afraid of making mistakes, the atmosphere declines and energy dissipates throughout the group.

It is said that Mourinho’s management style has passed its used-by date.  That, I don’t know. The man has received so many titles that he is indisputably good at what he does. But being a manager isolated from your environment is hardly a good strategy. Football and the organisation around the big clubs have changed a lot over the past decade. And so has its leadership. Maybe Mourinho hasn’t been affected.

Solskjær appears as a contrast in several ways. He is humble and doesn’t feel the need to emphasise himself all the time. On the contrary. He boasts about the people around him and probably receives considerably more from the world he inhabits than did the man who disappeared. Perhaps it’s because he knows the Mancunian people and culture – unlike in Cardiff where he came in as totally unknown a few years ago. An impatient owner and some weak player purchases gave Solskjær the stamp of failure.

Well, we'll see how long it carries this time. After five victories in a row, Solskjaer has emerged as a Messiah. In a portrait interview on Sunday evening, NRK tried to present it all as if the pressure on Solskjær has now gone up several notches. He almost had to laugh at that. Replacements don’t feel the pressure. At least, not when you’re involved in the club you love – and it loves you.