Red Devils, Bluebirds, and young group leaders

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as ManU manager offers a few insights into the promotion of young group leaders.

Last week, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as the manager of Manchester United on a permanent basis. It’s richly deserved, based on his rejuvenation of the club’s fortunes in the wake of Jose Mourinho’s sacking after an underwhelming start to the current campaign, and has been unanimously endorsed by fans and pundits alike.

Solskjaer’s status as a ManU alumnus – and a legendary one at that – makes it tempting to see his elevation as manifest destiny: yet another golden boy effortlessly ascending to the top job. But what makes it fascinating from a leadership perspective is that before he took charge of ManU, Solskjaer’s last managerial job in the Premier League was with Cardiff City – where his tenure was by almost any reckoning an abject failure (W3, L12, then relegation; later sacked after a run of 3 losses in 4 games in the second division).

In fairness, it’s worth noting that prior to Cardiff he had had a successful first managerial run with Norwegian club side Molde, winning the league in his first two seasons with them before fading in the third. Following his sacking from Cardiff, he returned to Molde, where he had a more mixed but still somewhat successful second run, albeit without again winning the league. 

That record hardly anticipates his instant and unparalleled success at ManU however, where he became the first Red Devils manager to win his first five game since Sir Matt Busby in the 1940s. The simple and probably accurate lesson to draw from such statistics is that it’s much easier to get results if you’re managing a squad which looks like it belongs at the top of the division than it is when you’re managing a squad that’s grappling near the bottom. Nothing controversial there. A squad packed with international talent and assembled at a cost of several hundreds of millions of pounds should be winning damn near everything, and certainly should be beating teams at the lower end of the division.

Therefore, one could argue that getting results with less expensive, lower-ranked teams is a much sterner test of management and the ability of a manager to get the best out of the players available than anything that faces a manager of one of the teams at the top.

That logic is probably exactly why Sir Alex Ferguson hand-picked David Moyes to be his successor at Manchester United when he retired. Moyes, while at Everton, had consistently ensured that the Toffees were punching well above their weight for many years, despite never being especially active in the transfer market and often having to make do with player loans instead. Yet their continued presence just outside the top teams in the division showed that he was getting every ounce of ability out of his squad.

In a similar vein, Roy Hodgson’s remarkable stewardship of Fulham saw them reach their first major final in the club’s 130-year history (the 2010 Europa League), again based on shrewd management of limited resources. Like Moyes, Hodgson was rewarded for this display with the appointment to the hot seat at Liverpool the following season.

Unfortunately, both Moyes at United and Hodgson at Liverpool were total failures. The many reasons for their respective shortcomings have been picked over by pundit-vultures for some time, but a key psychological feature was that neither man seemed fully comfortable with the demands of managing one of these glitzy top-of-the-table clubs.

In other words, although they had become extremely skilled in running a particular type of team, it seemed as though they might have left it too late to transition to the big-spending top end of the spectrum. And interestingly, when you look at a lot of the managers inhabiting that end of the spectrum – Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino, Zidane, even Mourinho when he first arrived at Chelsea – none are particularly old. They’re not teak-tough types who got there the hard way; most graduated pretty quickly to that level and once given the chance, grabbed it with both hands. Ferguson himself was only 45 when he first arrived at United.

From a purely research perspective then, football might offer a lesson in why it’s important to rapidly promote and empower young people – to do the best work, they need access to the best infrastructure and the greatest extent of resources as early as possible, just like the manager of one of the top teams. They need to learn their leadership stripes in an environment where they are happy spending money, comfortable utilising core facilities to their fullest extent, and not afraid of taking risks or being bold. Interestingly, this seems to mirror the conclusions made at Janelia Farms, where many scientists have flourished after being promoted to positions of responsibility straight out of their PhD. If you want people to be top researchers then you want them to be able to operate as soon as possible at a good level (and like Solskjaer, it certainly helps if you are a product of such a system in the first place).

Conversely, it also suggests that if you take too long rising to the top then you may not be fully able to capitalise once you get there. You may have become extremely skilled – like Moyes, like Hodgson – at extracting value from limited resources, but have become too set in your ways to be able to make best use of new and more luxurious circumstances. Of course, this can possibly also reflect the type of people – or rather, egos – that one has to deal with at either end of the resources spectrum. Mourinho’s sticky end at Manchester United seems to have been partly due to him trying to impose himself too much on a group of players who felt they didn’t need controlling so closely. 

So to realise one’s full research potential, what’s important is to be given a chance at the right time, but the rules that dictate what constitutes good leadership and good management are not the same at every scale – rather, they depend on what kind of environment you’re operating in.

Becoming a success at one level is by no means a guarantor of success at another. Just ask Solskjaer.

One thought on “Red Devils, Bluebirds, and young group leaders

  1. This is the most depressing thing I have read in a while, considering how wildly different are the conditions in which young researchers access their first independent posts.


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