Playing With the Culture

soskjaerManchester United have lost their first match with Ole Gunnar Solskjær in charge as their caretaker manager, which brings to an end a miraculous start for him as the new messiah of the once indomitable football club; a club that has more recently been in the wilderness, ever since the departure of the Lord Almighty Sir Alex Ferguson.

With Ferguson’s departure in 2013 there followed a series of false prophets in the form of David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, and the self-declared chosen one, Jose Mourinho. All have failed to deliver and failed to honour the legacy that Ferguson had left to them. Ferguson had built a culture in his 26 years in charge, a culture based on valuing the people and the community at Old Trafford that had served the club so willingly during his tenure.

That culture was swept away, along with the entire coaching staff and chips from the club menu, by Moyes when he arrived; determined as he was to stamp his own mark on the players and the staff and to signal an end to the United Way that had existed under Ferguson. Whilst Moyes lasted only ten months in the job, the damage had been done and his successor, Van Gaal, did little to try and reverse any of the changes.

One of the coaches that was asked to leave when Moyes arrived was Mike Phelan, who had been Fergusons’ assistant manager for the previous five years. Phelan was one of the first people that Solskjær contacted when he was asked to take up the management role, as he knew that the former United stalwart would have an important part to play in rebuilding the culture at United.

Solskjær has gone out of his way to connect with the people that make up the fabric of life at the Manchester club and it seems to have been well received. In the fourteen years Solskjær spent as a player and later as a coach, he got to understand the culture of Old Trafford and is now doing his best to return the club to its former glory and rebuild it’s success through the people that for the last six years appear to have been side-lined.

Solskjær now faces his toughest leadership challenge since he took over the Red Devils. With his side losing 2-0 to Paris St Germain in the Champions League and with their most influential player, Paul Pogba, being sent off in the same match, Solskjær faces the task of steeling them to face FA Cup rivals Chelsea next Monday. The following weekend they go on to play in the Premier League against title contenders and old rivals Liverpool. It could be a tricky couple of weeks that might expose Solskjær’s lack of high-level leadership experience.

Whatever happens though against Chelsea and Liverpool it is clear that something remarkable has taken place in the manager’s office at Old Trafford. Gone are the egos that came along with the former success of the leaders of the previous six years. Gone is the concept of charismatic leadership that Mourinho seemed to depend upon. This has all been replaced with a leadership that is embedded in humility, an understanding of people and a respect for the culture that underpins this particular football club.

I spend much of my time coaching leaders and helping them to understand their environment and the culture they operate in. Sometimes that requires an adjustment on their part, to work with the culture; sometimes it requires a departure from a culture that doesn’t match their values and often it’s about creating a culture, building from what’s there but working with the people around you to create something special.

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