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How not to choose a leader – by England’s FA

May 14, 2006 Leadership, Sunday Nation

This country appears to be obsessed with football – as long as it’s not Kenyan. We spend many months engrossed in the ins and outs of the English Premiership, La Liga and Serie A. And now we’re all preparing for the ultimate festival of international football – the World Cup itself. All Kenya, it seems, will disappear for a month.

So let this column talk football today. (Actually, we’re going to discuss executive selection – but that may not be apparent for a while). I would like to focus on an important event: the recent naming of the England national team manager. Mr. Steve McClaren, manager of Middlesbrough Football Club, was named to the country’s top post to succeed the outgoing Sven-Goran Eriksson, a Swede, and England’s first non-English manager.

The national team manager is named by the English Football Association (FA), who formed a selection panel to conduct this most difficult of recruitment processes. They appeared to start well: a short-list of potential candidates was agreed, and after much discussion, the panel zoomed in on a preferred candidate.

Just one problem: that candidate was not Steve McClaren. After months of speculation that the FA had decided to go for a full-blooded Englishman this time, the surprise news emerged that the top target was actually Felipe Scolari, a Brazilian who had guided his national team to the ultimate prize – the World Cup – in 2002. Mr. Scolari currently coaches Portugal, and seemed adamant that he would not talk to other teams until after next month’s world tourney.

Undeterred, the FA sent a delegation to Lisbon to get their man. Britain’s media pack followed, like vultures encircling a kill. Following two days of intense speculation, the volatile Mr. Scolari emerged to say that he was not, after all, interested. The FA was left aghast. It went back to the drawing board, and quickly named Mr. McClaren as the compromise candidate. His main credentials seemed to be that he is indeed English; and that he has deputised for his predecessor, the dour Eriksson, for a number of years.

A poll on Sky News taken immediately after the announcement showed that two-thirds of Britons were opposed to the selection.

Before I lose all the people who can’t stand football from this page forever, let us get to the point. The English FA’s selection fiasco (for that is what it was) has important lessons in top-executive selection, and we must heed them. So if you are involved in choosing and appointing the leaders of any team or organisation (or nation): pay attention.

First and foremost: you must always go for the best possible candidate. There can be no compromises in the selection of leaders; no half-measures; no concessions. You have to get the best available man or woman (subject, of course, to affordability). Leadership, by definition, is not for everyone. Great leadership is resident in precious few individuals. It must be discerned and grasped. Top leaders influence the lives of many, whether they are heading a football team, an NGO, a corporation or a country. The top seat is no place for the merely mediocre.

A warning: we must not confuse loudness for greatness. We often do, and the results are not inspiring. The best candidate is frequently the quieter one – but the one who shows a steely determination to focus on the task at hand and produce real results.

Second, you must define your criteria very carefully. How often do we see all sorts of selection criteria emerging that have nothing to do with performance? The English FA, listening to the shrill voices of English coaches, decided early on to pack its short-list with Englishmen. These included Mr. McClaren, under whose reign Middlesbrough has lost nearly as many games as it has won; Mr. Sam Allardyce of Bolton Wanderers; and Mr Alan Curbishley of Charlton Athletic. The pugnacious Mr. Allardyce is often labelled a proponent of ‘anti-football’: rather than play the game, his teams seem to come out to prevent their opponents from playing theirs. Mr. Curbishley’s long reign at Charlton ended last week with a 4-0 spanking by Manchester United. All three Englishmen have kept their teams rooted in mid-table mediocrity for years.

Indeed, none of the managers of the teams finishing in the top six places in the English Premiership’s recently concluded season is English. The FA, searching to justify its selection, was forced to say that Mr. McClaren was the only English manager on its shortlist to have won a “major trophy”. They were referring to the Carling Cup, a trophy so unglamorous that Manchester United (who won it earlier this year) are embarrassed to even talk about it.

This happens very often in Kenya. Top places are repeatedly given to people because of nationality, tribe, ethnicity or kinship. People are appointed because they “come from the region”, or because they are “our own”. The results ensuing from these appointments can usually be seen by all. By contrast, a leader selected after a rigorous selection process focusing on the right criteria usually goes on to great things. A look at our top corporations will confirm this for you.

England was its own worst enemy in this regard. Mr. Scolari’s main reason for declining the appointment seemed to be the ridiculous intrusion into his life by British ‘paparazzi’: at one stage two dozen journalists were camped in his front garden waiting to pounce. Already British tabloids were running comparisons of his wife’s dress sense compared to that of Mr. Eriksson’s more glamorous partner. Who would want any part of that?

A third lesson: define a clear selection process, and conduct it professionally. The FA’s antics should be in a ‘don’t do’ manual: don’t fudge the key selection criteria from the beginning; don’t suddenly decide to breach protocol to seal a deal; don’t leak things to the media until you are sure of the outcome; and don’t end up naming compromise candidates in a panic.

Of course, even the most rigorous process can fail to deliver the right candidate. Executive selection is, at the end of the day, as much about gut instinct and plain luck as anything else. But that does not mean we should throw ourselves up to whimsy; nor that we should conduct it in disarray and hope for the best. We owe it our stakeholders, whoever they are, to be thorough and thoughtful at every stage.

It is difficult not to feel sorry for Mr. McClaren. He knows he is at best second-choice; he knows that his selection is more to do with genes than genius. Perhaps he will surprise us all. But his last game in charge of Middlesbrough did not shower hope all over England. His team played in the UEFA Cup (Europe’s second-tier cup tournament) final earlier this week. Their opponents were FC Sevilla, a Spanish side who had not won a major cup since 1948. Middlesbrough were thrashed 4-0, the worst margin in a final in the history of the tournament. Mr. McClaren said he was leaving his club to lead England “with his head held high”.

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