I don’t often have football on my mind, but this past week has proved an exception. Consider the recent change in fortunes of two UK premier league teams – Chelsea and Wigan as they dazzled spectators and supporters alike with shows of outstanding performance on the field. What interests me, is the story of their success. The Chelsea team have had 6 managers in the past five years. The most recent (Andre Villas Bollas) was sacked after nine months. Roberto di Matteo is the interim manager, was a former player and took up his position last month. After months of uneven performance there was little hope of them holding onto one of the top four positions in the League table, let alone winning the FA Cup or going through to the Champions League. But the change in leadership in the past few weeks has resulted in a marked change in the team’s performance, and they have won all of their last seven matches, and the future looks brighter and more successful. So, unless you happen to be a Chelsea supporter, you may be asking ‘what’s the big deal?’
The description of life on the field, and in dressing room at Chelsea football club is not that different from countless other organisations. Yet it’s tempting to dismiss it as either not mattering much because ‘it’s just a game’, or being irrelevant to much of what goes on as part of everyday life in more ‘ordinary’ organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Football is a multi-billion pound industry. The stakes are high, and poor performance impacts quickly on the bottom line. Paying closer attention to the roller-coaster performance of this team reveals with great clarity, the importance of the dynamic relationship between leadership, followership, performance, and emotions. By all public accounts of what happened at Chelsea, the previous manager wanted to make substantial changes to the team, and club, and did not appear to have the support or respect of the players, who were critical of his leadership style. The group dynamics produced a team who went on the field to play, but lacked sparkle, and could not combine their best talents to win more matches than they lost. The cocktail of emotions and underlying frustrations appeared to grow, and without resolution, it was as if the team were trying to accelerate ‘with the brake on’. A change in leadership can be disruptive for any organisation or team, especially if it’s an annual event. But for the Chelsea team, the dynamic has shifted in a positive way, with a dramatic impact on performance.
So what does this show us? The new leader of the Chelsea team has made a genuine and authentic emotional connection with his team. He has not made any changes to the players or other personnel, and is working with the same line up as his predecessor. His authority is accepted, and he has been able to align the passions and energy of the team with a focus on winning and performing at a high level – indeed this team seems to have rediscovered a creativity in their combined talents that seems new, and gives them pleasure – and they want to repeat that experience. It’s a recipe worth noting for any leader, especially when trying to improve performance and lead change. Leadership is the other side of followership. To regard this as anything other than a creative relationship of ‘exchange’ where emotions play an important part in determining performance, runs the risk of missing out on the potential to reach for the stars. Knowing how to navigate the choppy waters of emotional turbulence is essential for leaders who want more than mediocre performance. This starts with developing a greater appreciation and knowledge of self and the dynamics of groups – without it, the best strategy and plans are likely to remain unrealised and on the shelf.
If you are interested in finding out more about emotions at work we’re holding a series of seminars on the subject.