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Business lessons from Sport - Manchester United

By PJ STEVENS Published 28th Apr 2014
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Why have Manchester United football team fallen so far from grace, from the pinnacle of the Premiership League to mediocrity in the space of a few months? They are currently languishing 7th in the league, with no hope of a trophy or of European football next season. This is not a bad season - that perhaps would have been finishing third in the league with no silverware - no, 7th is disgraceful.

How can a team fall is far, so fast, and what can we learn from their misery and misfortune? I would like to offer five hallmarks, or measures, that might help to explain their change in fortune.

Firstly, there was a change in leadership. This was no ordinary change; but the loss of one of (if not the) most successful, effective and driven leaders seen in the business of football. So much so that at times it may have seemed like dictatorship rather than leadership; Sir Alex lead with clear belief and purpose.

Leadership is a key to success, not just the leadership of those in authority - the Club and Manager – but perhaps more importantly leadership at the individual level including the two dozen players, some of who earn more per day than some people earn in a year. Leadership at the local level (individual) is paramount to success, and this was lacking this year.

When David Moyes arrived there was more than a change in leader, there seemed to be a temperature drop in belief. Under Sir Alex there was a belief - self belief and team belief - that anything was possible. Yet through the 2023-14 season that belief seemed to evaporate, evidenced by players looking lethargic and less committed, and expectations around the team changed from positive to just plain hopeful.

The change in expectations were seen and felt not just within the team but in home and away fans, from other teams and the media. The expectation of high performance disappeared. Last season if United were a goal down with ten minutes to play everyone, even the opposition, expected them to score and save the game. Expectation plays a huge part in success, from golfers who expect to hole putts to entrepreneurs who expect to grow and sell a business - expectation and success go hand in hand.

High performance teams have the resources they need to be successful and, importantly, use or deploy these resources wisely and effectively. United seemed to have plenty of the resources required on paper, but these resources were underutilised and in truth they under performed. 

Successful people and teams live a purpose. Ask Lizzie Yarnold, who followed Amy Williams to Winter Olympics Gold sliding on a tea tray at death defying speeds. Yarnold found the resources to go from zero to hero in just a few years joining the National Squad in 2010. Her purpose was simple; win Gold. She expected to be at her best in Sochi.

Not only do I believe Manchester United need to take stock of these five checks, but the England Football team absolutely have to for this summer or its going to be another underwhelming performance by a bunch of individuals who score high on salary, sponsorship and self importance, and low on team work, leadership, performance and goals.

Watch United over the next few Games with Ryan Giggs in charge, watch their performance against these five criteria, and see what you notice. My bet is an instant short term uplift.

For businesses, take a look at these five simple measures in your own team; Leadership, Belief, Expectation, Resources and Purpose, and test against the three key levels - Individuals, Teams and at the Organisational level.

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