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Leadership Thought #490 – Sometimes A Leader Sticks Around Too Long: Arsene Wenger

August 27, 2017

Merci Arsène | News | Arsenal.com

Sadly, sometimes a leader sticks around too long.

I am a huge fan of Arsenal Football Club and this has become a much more difficult chore than it used to be.  The club that used to be known for its innovative offensive playmaking and rock-solid defense has become sadly predictable to defend and quite easy to penetrate defensively.  Star players from around the world used to line up for a chance to play for the team and now the best current players want to leave or only stay if the money is ridiculous.  Moreover, we rarely make it on the radar of outside top players these days and if so, it is used as a bargaining chip with other teams or their own teams to get a better deal.  Competing clubs sensing our desperation take hard negotiating lines and we lose many more opportunities than we gain as a result.  We used to be a real threat in the Champions League and now have dropped from being an easy quarter-final opponent to not even qualifying this past year.  It has been a sad decline over these past ten years, not without some glimmers of hope occasionally but mostly expected disappointment.

If you want to look for the main reason for all these problems, look no further than the coach and leader Arsene Wenger.  I take no pleasure in saying this.  There is much to admire about the man.  Certainly, his long history as a world-class manager and past record of accomplishment will certainly occupy football (or soccer) history books for years to come.  Arsene has very many positive leadership traits.  He has an air of professional dignity which is a rare trait these days.  He’s been called a player’s coach who invests in grooming young talent and giving it time to blossom.  His goal has never been to just buy championships with a revolving door of players; he commits to his core group of players.  He also seems to seriously care about turning young athletes into high functioning grown men.  He also rarely throws anyone under the bus and takes his criticism head-on.  His teams are well run financially yielding a positive return for the owners while other teams bask in ridiculous debt or require significant subsidies from wealthy owners.  Lastly, he is loyal to a fault even when it isn’t always returned in kind.  However, sports, like life, is lived in the present while working towards the future, not mired in the past.  Winning does still matter.  It is certainly cliché to say the following, but “absolute power does corrupt even the most well-intentioned leader,” and “what got you here doesn’t always keep you here or take you where you need to go” and “the best predictor of future behavior is (recent) past performance.”

It’s hard to run a first-class competitive organization for 20-plus years.   I tell my clients they need to reinvent themselves as a leader every 5-7 years and change the organization accordingly.  One could argue that this timeline is being compressed given the pace of change these days.  Here are some tips on how you can avoid ending a long successful career in less-than-ideal circumstances (Wenger will sadly most likely get fired):

  • It’s great to have multiple definitions of success but never forget the most important one: winning.
  • Focus on the few areas where you can truly make a difference and hire the most talented people you can find to do everything else.
  • Once you hire them let them do their jobs.
  • You must become more, not less curious with age and challenge your conceits before they cost you dearly.
  • Ask more questions rather than thinking you have all the answers.  Be open to new ideas.
  • Never stop believing there is a better way to do things.  And, not every great idea needs to be home-grown.
  • Excuses are for losers; winners take affirmative action.
  • Routines are only beneficial when they yield positive results.
  • You must spend money to make money and yield top results.
  • Be mindful of your risk profile becoming more conservative with time; don’t forget the importance of taking big risks.
  • You need to be careful not to surround yourself with “yes” men or women.
  • Your job is to find and leverage talent to its highest and best use, never forget this.  Set people up for success.
  • What it takes to motivate talent changes with time and your need to adjust your approach to match this reality.
  • Not all criticism is created equal; some of your closest critics speak out because they genuinely care about you and the organization. They want you to do better not fail.
  • Don’t forget you have multiple stakeholders, and you ignore any one of them for too long to your peril.
  • Never hold on to people who would rather work elsewhere. Let them see the grass isn’t always greener and have confidence in your ability to attract new talent
  • Never become predictable to your competition.

No leader can rest on their laurels for too long and there is always another year or season coming when you must prove yourself again.  Sports can be even more ruthless than business in this regard.  I truly wish Wenger had retired last year after winning the FA Cup.  It would have been nice for him to have a quasi-graceful exit.  However, at some point, the required change to turn around an organization requires new leadership.  There is just too much overhauling necessary for the existing architect to embrace.  It’s hard to look in the mirror and accept the problems are of your own doing.  It takes a big man or woman to embrace their responsibility for failure.

I am an eternal optimist and would love to be proved wrong in the case of Wenger and Arsenal although I highly doubt it.

Admittedly writing this post after a tough defeat to Liverpool today, but creative inspiration can come from odd places….