Creating and Keeping a Culture: Lighting Up the ‘Dark Side’ of Sports Directorship in Football

28 May 2019

Creating and Keeping a Culture: Lighting Up the ‘Dark Side’ of Sports Directorship in Football
As with any new-ish profession, it seems fair to say that football is still findings its feet when it comes to Sporting Directors. There have, of course, been lots of early successes – successes which have shown the clear value of the role. On the flip side, there have also been many cases of ‘oh **** – let’s try that again!’
As covered by Dan Parnell here, one of the early challenges has been crossed-wires or doubts over what the Sporting Director does – or doesn’t do. Another challenge is the sheer scale of the job. For example, take a key statement from the FA’s Level 5 Technical Director’s course:
The role of a technical director is dynamic and multi-dimensional with the ultimate aim of continued success through the creation of a high performance culture supported by an aligned vision and strategy.
In sum, the Sporting Director is responsible for a LOT; including one of the most vital parts of any club – culture. On the plus side, get the culture right and you’re onto a winner. On the downside, culture is still one of the most vaguely described and bloody difficult things to get on top of! However, while it has always been a priority for teams who make the most of their potential, it seems that ‘culture’ is now being talked about more often (or more loudly). But what exactly is ‘culture’?
While there are a barrel-load of definitions, one of the most useful is that culture reflects what a group normally thinks and does on its best days, worst days, and its ‘typical’ days; or, ‘how we normally do things around here’. On this basis, our team have spent some time exploring how leaders make ‘elite thinking’ and ‘elite behaviour’ normal in their groups – then keep this normal over time. From this work, lots of the ‘usual suspects’ have come to the fore; things like a shared vision, open relationships, ownership, role clarity, and consistent reward. However, as well as all of the crucial ‘bright and positive’ stuff, our participants also stressed the role of factors that have typically had much less coverage (at least in a ‘positive’ sense). In short, factors that relate to the ‘darker’, or ‘socially undesirable’ side of leadership.
As one particular example, these leaders have described the need to ‘covertly shape’ as much as ‘overtly direct’ those they interact with; especially as everyone has a view on how things could be done (it’s not just player power!). So, as well as addressing how groups think and act ‘out in the open’, changing what is normal can also come from shaping the situation in which groups think and act. In other words, this approach encourages individuals to make their own call on what to think and act; but, in a situation that makes them more likely to pick the ‘best option’ for the group’s long-term success. From our work so far, this shaping has included things like:
  • recruiting individuals who bring something different and desirable to the group (to discourage current staff from ‘becoming comfortable’ or doing things the same way)
  • making performance data publicly available (to nudge individuals to compare against and outperform each other)
  • designing systems that expose the limitations of individuals who are likely to become detractors of the culture in the future (so others see them and their views as less influential)
  • building strong relationships with individuals who glue sub-groups together (so that those who could ‘side either way’ are more likely to stay on board due to the weight of perception)
  • bringing the media into selected parts of the environment (to encourage more positive reporting by ‘knowing the people’; or, to publicise good work ‘upwards’ to the Board)

So, as well as inspiring or working with people directly on what to do or think, the effective leader also seems to be someone who can work indirectly as ‘a shepherd in the shadows’. Of course, this approach won’t be a surprise to most in the game. Perhaps the more interesting question then is, why isn’t this side of leadership discussed or educated more openly

Lying at the heart of the answer, it seems, is perception. For some, working in this covert way is ‘paternalistic’ – a senior figure helping others to make choices that will benefit the majority in the long run. Others, of course, might see this as manipulative; and, in some cases, they could be right. However, manipulation is not automatically ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. In fact, leaders in our work have suggested that this ‘dark art’ – plus others like being ruthless and socially dominant – might be useful for a group in the long-run when used intentionally, occasionally, and appropriately.
So, where does this leave us?  Clearly, the darker side of leading is a sensitive topic; and one that it is often linked to negative outcomes – especially when it is used a lot or with poor rationale. However, this side of leading is also common and predictable. It can also be, at times, highly effective when creating and keeping a desired culture (as shown by some of the world’s current leading coaches). As such, resources or programmes that focus mainly on the ‘bright and positive stuff’ may be setting Directors up to do only part of the job.  Instead, Directors (and those supporting them) would do well to consider their full range of behaviour; and, even more crucially, the ‘professional judgment and decision making’ (PJDM) that helps them to select the best behaviour at the best time for the best purpose.  In this sense, being a top leader isn’t just about having lots of ‘behaviour options’, it’s also knowing how and why to use them. The skills and tools of PJDM are therefore one of ‘next big steps’ in supporting the Directors of today and developing those of tomorrow.
Why is this important for Sporting Directors?
  • As the Sporting Director is responsible for creating and keeping a high performance culture, it’s vital that they have the knowledge and skills to make ‘high performance thinking’ and ‘high performance behaving’ normal in their clubs;
  • To date, research and education has tended to emphasise the ‘bright and positive’ ways to do this; either overlooking or downplaying the role that the ‘darker side’ of leadership can sometimes play;
  • To give their club’s the best chance of long-term success, Sporting Directors would do well to consider the full range of leadership behaviour and – even more importantly – develop their skills in PJDM. Strong skills in PJDM can improve the chance of behaving in the best way at the best time for the best purpose, while also minimising the big risks of getting behaviour ‘wrong’.
Author: Andrew Cruickshank PhD CPsychol
Sport & Performance Psychologist at Grey Matters UK / Lecturer at University of Central Lancashire. 

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