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Julian Barling is a professor of organizational behaviour and the Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston.
Julian Barling is a professor of organizational behaviour and the Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston.

LEADERSHIP LAB

What Manchester United’s meltdown can teach us about succession Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

All too often we turn to success stories for our leadership lessons. Sometimes, though, the most valuable lessons come not from successes but from failures. Sadly, these lessons often go unheeded because we are still too emotional to accept them, or not ready to absorb them.

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The storied Manchester United soccer team, a global brand, may well be in this situation right now. The team’s manager, David Moyes, was fired on Tuesday after just 10 months in the job, shortly before the end of the team’s worst season ever. He had been hand-picked by the team’s legendary former manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who led the team to 13 league titles over 26 years.

While Manchester United fans must now make sense of another managerial change, we can look past the fans’ dismay at their team’s dismal recent performance to glean several lessons about leadership succession.

There is a danger in allowing superstars to choose their replacements.

It should come as no surprise that superstar managers have healthy egos. While the “company voice” requires that you publicly talk about the club going on to ever-greater heights without you, how many superstars are threatened by a replacement who might show that they were not that great after all?

People – including great soccer managers – just have too much invested psychologically in their own legacies to allow them to make sound objective decisions at one of the most emotional times of their lives, for example, when they are resigning from the pinnacle of public success for an uncertain future.

Can we be sure that Sir Alex’s decision to appoint a replacement – a man who had never managed a team that had won any kind of championship in the past 10 years, but had consistently finished in the top half of the league – was not unconsciously biased in some way by his own personal needs?

A new broom doesn’t always sweep clean.

Following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, his successor as U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson knew that if he were to stand any chance of being successful, he had to keep every member of JFK’s cabinet on board, and he did what he could to ensure that happened.

When Mr. Moyes arrived at Manchester United, however, he brought his senior team of closest advisers and trusted trainers with him. This means is that it was not just Sir Alex who departed from Manchester United at the end of the 2013 season, but his entire senior team.

Intriguingly, researchers investigated the advisability of this “clean sweep” approach in sports early in the 1960s. While bringing your own team speeds up the new manager’s integration, it also complicates that person’s role by creating resentment in the people he must now motivate. If anything, the team may do better following a managerial change if the senior team stays in place.

Why might this be the case? Bringing your own trusted colleagues signals a lack of trust by the incoming manager in the situation on the ground. It ensured that the strategy and cohesion that had been so successful at Manchester United for two decades was less likely to continue, and increased the amount of change to which the players had to adjust.

Stick to your expertise.

More than 20 seasons of unparalleled results make it impossible to argue with Sir Alex’s extraordinary expertise as one of the best soccer managers ever to grace the sport. Intriguingly, one thing he had never been involved in was selecting a manager. Doing so upon his resignation now meant that he was stepping far beyond his area of experience and expertise.

Notwithstanding his legendary status as a manager, the board of directors failed the team, their fans, themselves and Sir Alex by abrogating to him the responsibility to choose his successor. Boards of directors are empowered to make these decisions, and should. In the end, events forced them to make a decision – this time from a position of organizational crisis, not success.

The lessons from the managerial fiasco that has plagued Manchester United are clear: Superstars do best what they do best, and no more. And boards of directors serve the organization best when they hire and fire. So don’t let the reflected glory of a superstar dazzle you to the point where you willingly abandon tried-and-tested management practices.

Julian Barling (@JulianBarling), is a professor of organizational behaviour and the Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston. His latest book, The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders, was published in January 2014 by Oxford University Press.

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