Transformational leadership is about understanding the potential motivation factors for followers and developing a shared and common objective. It is such kind of leadership that forms a foundation for a sustainable, effective leader-follower relationship. In sports organizations are characterized by frequent organizational change and therefore it requires leaders or managers to adapt and survive in the ever-changing system. In such settings leaders should put their follower’s motives, needs, and emotions before their own while keeping them focused on their individual and organizational targets and goals. This blog will discuss the success and failure of leadership/follower relationships in sports organizations making reference to Manchester United during the leadership of its legendary manager Sir. Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson arrived in Manchester in 1986 and his first action was to create a sustainable long-term structure in the club by the modernization of the club’s youth program. His aim was to work with young talents who he could motivate and inspire to achieve his goals and targets without the aspect of superiority and pride coming in to play. Consequently, his strategy panned-out when he was able to win all British Football Trophies; 9 Premiership Leagues, 5 Football Association (FA) cups, and 7 community Shields. He also conquered European football by winning 2 UEFA Champions League and 1 Winner’s Cup and UEFA Super Cup. He served for 24 years and became the club’s longest-serving manager. All that Ferguson achieved in the club was built on a well-developed relationship with his team by giving the young players better technical skills that make them winners and above everything inspiring and motivating them to be better by each game. Hence, he was able to create loyalty among his followers through transformational leadership.

Fergy time

Football clubs are prone to change, its either a player leaves the club or new ones coming in during transfer periods. Ferguson as the leader used his management skills to create an environment that was flexible enough to accept change by developing depth in various dimensions such as leadership, diversity, and servanthood. In relationship depth, Ferguson was able to develop meaningful connections between him and the team as well as creating a level of appreciation for those that are part of the team like the technical team, chefs, stewards, and team doctor among others at United. Diversity depth involved allowing people of varied skills, education, background, and experiences at the club. The variety enabled the team to complement and work together improving their personal relationship with each other and with him. In the dimension of servanthood depth, Ferguson was able to inspire his followers at United to be selfless and work together to help the team and the club succeed.  These three management-dimensions enabled Ferguson to create an environment where leaders and followers at United could welcome and embrace change at the club.

Ferguson emphasized team development and intrinsic motivation where he shifted focus from him to them and other leaders involved in management. He was always cognizant of what his followers needed and what motivated them to perform better. He was able to use this knowledge combined with his charisma, intellectual stimulation and inspirational skills to provide his followers with the push they needed to excel. Ferguson’s charismatic character enabled him to instill trust, respect and pride in playing for the biggest club in Europe, nay, the entire world. He was able to build a relationship with followers who absolutely would give their best in games, just not to disappoint him.  He was also able to firmly articulate purposes and communicate high expectations to the team while inspiring them to focus on not just in games but also on their personal development. The two dimensions, inspiration and charisma enabled Ferguson to motivate players to push their limits and excel at new heights.

However, on the other side of the coin, Ferguson was obsessed with control and whenever he didn’t have it, he could snap out of control and do something he would regret. He demanded control of his players’ personal life too, for instance, when he found out that David Beckham was dating his current wife Victoria, he hit him with his own shoes in the changing room at the half-time break. Such led to a sore in his relationship with Beckham who was the club’s best player at that time, eventually, Beckham left United for Real Madrid. In this case, the failure in leadership/followership relationship led to the failure in the organization. Ferguson detested working with egocentric players who felt that they were bigger than the team or the club and he wouldn’t rethink about offloading them during the transfers. Releasing such important players in the team would then affect the mentality and the fluidity in the team that would take time to reconstruct the leader/follower relationship again.

Sir. Alex with his prodigy Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

In conclusion, every leader has unique traits and styles of leadership that might be desired by followers from the type of companies depending on the industry. However, leaders in the sports industry look for followers’ motives, values, and their ability to be transformed into tomorrow’s leaders. On the other hand, the success of any organization is in the human resource but the attributes and qualities of a leader to inspire followers to commit to objectives and goals-as demonstrated by Ferguson during his tenure at Manchester United- is what brings the difference. As has been discussed, the leadership/follower relationship is what brings the difference between the success and failure of the organization. Therefore, organizations should allocate enough resources to ensure that leaders can learn and develop skills on how to effectively relate with their followers since it determines to a great extent on the ability of the company to assess, hire and maintain top skilled employees.


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