Philosophy and Ethos

03 Sep 2015


Reflect on the great managers, past and present, and it’s clear that there are many different paths to success. What links them all, though, is the clarity of their values and beliefs.

Whatever your role, it is your strongly held values and beliefs that will be the bedrock of your behaviour, and will shape how you interact with others and perform. Great leaders know and understand this.

If a club could guarantee one thing from an incoming manager it would be that he promises to improve its team’s performance, year on year. This is the hallmark of a great manager. Such continual improvement requires an ongoing, positive and permanent change in how the players think and, therefore, how they perform. Culture changes behaviour and great leaders have the ability to shape culture.

When Sir Alex Ferguson started at Manchester United, he set about building a culture that grew to be so strong and powerful you could almost smell it when you walked into the training complex at Carrington. At the very heart of his leadership and management ethos was a belief in the need to set and expect very high standards; it ran through all aspects of his personal and professional life and was reflected in everything that he did. Like all the great managers, Sir Alex was a living example to his players.

He also fiercely believed that the team was bigger than any one person in that team; in an attacking style that became synonymous with the club; and, above all, a never-ever-give-up attitude. All of these strong beliefs were exemplified by the team, in particular their characteristic knack of snatching last-minute victories from the jaws of defeat. Players knew what their manager believed in. They also knew that whatever team he decided to select, no excuse would be tolerated once the game was underway.


A manager’s passion and vision and their ability to turn that vision into reality are critical when trying to successfully implement any necessary changes. This demands a very clear view of the future you want to see; you must know exactly what you want to put in place, why and how.

Arsène Wenger sums up this aspect of management very clearly, saying, “You must always manage the players at your club as if you are going to be there for the rest of your life, yet at the same time know that you may be sacked tomorrow. If you do not think like this, how will you build a team, create team spirit and develop a culture?” Great managers recognise that without this ability to constantly keep one eye on the horizon they will always get bogged down and limited by what is happening day to day.

That is not to say that leadership does not concern itself with the here and now. Great leaders are fully aware that the need to deal with problems and make decisions day by day lies at the very core of the job. On an ongoing basis they will be asking themselves some very fundamental questions about their players, teams and upcoming games.

A manager has the right to expect that his players live the right way, keep themselves fit, treat the profession and each other with respect, and that they use every minute of training wisely. For his part, his responsibility is to provide a framework that gives them the best chance to improve, perform and succeed, individually and collectively. There is no right way to play or style that fits all clubs and all people. However, it is essential that each manager has a very clear picture of the team and players he wants to develop, while always being prepared to adapt this ideal to what is possible and to the needs of each game.  

There again, the strength of your belief and vision is key, because in order for such game-by-game adjustments to be effective you have to win the buy-in of the players, as a group and individually. How well you can do that will depend largely on how firmly you stand by your own ideas and approaches, how passionate you are about your chosen direction and how well you have communicated all of this to your team. José Mourinho is a master of this art.

While people often talk about a manager’s brand of football, without success it is very difficult to build a brand, but it can be done by those who remain true to their values and beliefs and have the determination and resilience to keep going. You cannot win every game, but you can and must win the hearts and minds of all those people who impact on your ability to survive, win and succeed.