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Shankly remembered: Lessons from Liverpool


This month, Mark Loftus of the Thinking Partnership looks at the recent goings-on at Liverpool football Club, and what leaders can learn.

It has been a good week. As a life-long Evertonian few experiences have been sweeter than that of watching Liverpool FC succumb to Everton FC in the derby. It was the icing on a cake of schadenfreude that I have consumed with relish as month after month of extraordinary events in the boardroom of Gillett and Hicks have unfolded.

Setting my partisan self to one side, the events have prompted me to reflect on what we can learn about leadership from Liverpool's current predicament, and what we can learn from the unparalleled success they enjoyed in English and European football from the mid 60s to the late 80s.

Leaders create leaders

The first observation is that it is leaders who create leaders. It is not leadership development specialists, consultants, coaches or business schools. The most demanding test of how good a leader somebody really is, is whether they create leaders.
Liverpool was owned from the early 50s to 2007 by the Moores family, who had made their money as owners of Littlewoods. This stability in ownership led to continuity of management off the pitch, which in turn fed success on the pitch. 15 years of Bill Shankly's leadership was followed by nine years of his former assistant, Bob Paisley, who in turn was followed by his former assistant Joe Fagan, and then by his key striker, Kenny Dalglish. It was a remarkable three-decade record of success, of leaders creating leaders who created the next leaders.
"The most demanding test of how good a leader somebody really is, is whether they create leaders."
What stands out looking back on Shankly's time and influence is the deep commitment that he had both to his players and to the Liverpool cause. There are managers who show unflinching desire to win and for whom the players are the means to this end, and there are managers who are compromised because of their uncertainty about how to handle their superstars. This interweaving of deep commitment to a cause and matching commitment to the people was expressed by Shankly in a characteristically direct way. His reaction to Tommy Smith, the Liverpool hard-man defender, when Smith turned up for training with a bandaged knee was: "Take that bandage off, and what do you mean your knee, it's Liverpool's knee!"
And as for articulating commitment to the cause, it does not come much clearer than this: "Fire in your belly comes from pride and passion in wearing the red shirt. We don't need to motivate players because each of them is responsible for the performance of the team as a whole. The status of Liverpool's players keeps them motivated."

Leaders create the conditions for leadership

The second reflection is that leaders must create the conditions within which they and their people can lead and perform. It is a primary act of leadership to create the space within which others can lead.
In one of our clients, emerging from a painful turnaround, the CEO in his first 18 months focused solely on ensuring that the business delivered strong operational performance, despite evidence of major dysfunction in his board and colleagues pressing him to try to sort the problems out. His judgement was that he needed this performance to provide the foundation of re-establishing the executive's credibility in the eyes of analysts. Respect in the City gave him the authority to sort out his own board, facing down some powerful figures who were also significant shareholders. In turn, this created the space for his executives to perform in, secure in the awareness that the Board would not interfere in the operations of the business, in the execution of strategy.
Martin Broughton's actions as chairman of Liverpool offer a direct parallel, but with his focus being to sort his board out first: having the courage to face down and resolve the poisonous climate that had emerged around the Hicks and Gillett ownership. Whether this will bring the stability Liverpool so badly needs will remain to be seen. 
"It is a primary act of leadership to create the space within which others can lead."
On this analysis, Shankly and his successors benefited enormously from the stability that the Moores family brought, and their determination not to interfere with the manager, to make sure that they gave him the space in which to lead. There was little thanks from Shankly, though: "At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques."
Perhaps this is the final lesson from Liverpool. There needs to be a willingness on the part of the owners and the board to leave their egos at the gates of Anfield and to have the humility to do their part in connecting to the cause of the club. As Shankly reflected: "I was only in the game for the love of football - and I wanted to bring back happiness to the people of Liverpool."
Mark Loftus is a director of The Thinking Partnership. He has 20 years' experience as an organisational consultant and is a recognised authority on emotional intelligence and the art of assessing senior leaders. He is a chartered clinical psychologist with an MPhil from London's Institute of Psychiatry, and has a degree in philosophy and psychology from Oxford University. 

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