As with many theories in psychology, those on leadership have taken a few twists and turns before they arrived at their current position. Early psychologists tended to favour trait theories i.e. you are born with certain characteristics that stay relatively stable throughout your life. With regard to leadership this meant that you were either born a leader or conversely a follower. The problem with this theory was that someone could be a great leader in one situation, but poor in another. An example would be Winston Churchill. No one can doubt the effect he had on the country during the Second World War, but was less successful during peacetime when elected in 1951.

In sporting terms many coaches/managers who have been successful at one club have failed miserably at others. One example that sticks out is Brian Clough. He excelled at Derby County (along with his trusty sidekick Peter Taylor) where he took them from (then) Second Division as champions in 1969 to winning the top flight three years later, as well as the semis of the European Cup in 1973. He then had two unsuccessful spells – one at Brighton and Hove Albion that lasted eight months – followed by a lightning quick spell at Leeds United (without Taylor) where he infamously lasted just 44 days in the job. He then went on to make Nottingham Forest (where he was re-united with Taylor) one of the most successful clubs in the country. In 1977 Forest were promoted and the following season won the league title (the first in the club’s history), making Clough one of four managers  to have won the English league with two different clubs. Forest also won two consecutive European Cups (in 1979 and 1980) and two League Cups (1978 and 1979) before Taylor retired in 1982. Clough stayed on as Forest manager for another decade and won two more League Cups (1989 and 1990). This goes to show that different situations require flexibility from leaders (and also the effect that good support from other staff can have).

As a response to this early ‘nature’ stance, the pendulum then swung completely in the opposite direction to the ‘nurture’ viewpoint. Bandura’s ‘Social Learning Theory’ was applied to leading. It claimed the opposite of the trait theory: that leading behaviours were not innate but learnt from others around us through the process of copying those that we respect. It begins when we see someone we admire modelling a leader behaviour. We remember this behaviour and copy it ourselves in similar situations. If it works (i.e. it is rewarded/reinforced) we retain this behaviour in our leading ‘repertoire’ and will use it again. If its not successfully reinforced we will discard the behaviour. In this way leading can be seen as a gradual learning process through trial and error. When Clough went to Leeds and alienated all the players pretty much immediately, I’m sure he used this experience to later learn from his mistakes (with guidance from Taylor). This theory, as with the trait theory, gives a very one-dimensional outlook – its either one or the other.

The pendulum was later to swing again and settle somewhere in the middle: the interactionist approach – a bit of nature and a bit of nurture. Chelladurai’s interactional model claims that there are three things that determine a team’s performance: the situation; the team’s characteristics; and the leader’s characteristics. The situation may be the position the team is in the league and what their aspirations are. The team may prefer a certain type of leader: autocratic (dictator), democratic (everyone gets a say), or laissez-faire (anything goes). The leader may only be able to display a limited amount of behaviours or they may be able to change their behaviour according to the team’s needs. The closer that the required behaviour from the leader is to the preferred behaviour and the actual behaviour, the better the team will perform. In other words if the team gets what they want and what they need from the manager they will play better for him/her. Some managers have such a broad range of behaviours that they can adapt their style to any situation. For example, Martin O’Neill has been successful wherever he has managed, as has Jose Mourinho.


Fig. 1 Chelladurai’s Interactional Model of Leadership

The coach/leader is the biggest influence on an athlete’s performance (other than themselves). Therefore, as a coach it is vital to behave in a way that will maximise your athlete’s:

  • Success (depending on how you define that – winning or developing your athletes, depending on age and ability)
  • Welfare (meeting their needs and aspirations)

Are you ‘Transactional’ or ‘Transformational’.  Do you deal in ‘transactions’ i.e. “if you do what I want, I will give you what you want – some form of reward” (e.g. praise) OR do you try to ‘transform’ your athletes – inspire them through charisma, enthusiasm and being a positive role model.

Also, are you a democrat or an autocrat – do you consult or dictate? A collaborative approach (where you ask the athletes for input into sessions) has been shown to be effective in boosting and maintaining motivation , but as long as the collaborators know who is boss! Someone has to make sense out of all the input and the coach takes ultimate responsibility if it all goes wrong. Again, this depends on the situation (during a competition there is not time to consult others) and the athlete’s characteristics (gender, maturity, age, ability, experience, personality and cultural background). It is harder to consult large groups as it will be time-consuming and younger athletes as they will have less knowledge to draw on (here you can get round this by simplifying the task/question – its amazing how much children do know).

So, how should a ‘good’ leader act? Below are some  ‘textbook’ definitions of a good leader:

  • Self-reflection: It is always good to see how you can improve yourself (a quality of a good coach), even if it is in the smallest possible way. A second opinion is always a good thing, because however self-reflective you are, you will always have biases towards your own behaviour.
  • Reinforce desired behaviours: use intrinsic rewards – give praise to athletes when they do something good and not just “good!” (positive reinforcement). Avoid over-praising though as this can lead athletes become over-dependent on it and losing motivation when its not forthcoming.
  • If your fighter makes a mistake, give them ‘mistake-contingent instruction’: in English, tell them where they went wrong, how to do it right and make sure they show you the correct way of doing it to enhance their understanding.
  • The occasional negative reinforcement can be good. If done before a positive one, it can increase effects of the later positive. If done after a positive, it can decrease defensiveness to the later negative.
  • Listen – communication is a two-way street. Paraphrase what people say to you (shorten and re-phrase it and ask questions if necessary) to show you have understood .
  • Make strong decisions and be accountable for them.
  • Actively try to solve problems/conflicts –clearly define roles for athletes/staff and ensure they are understood and accepted. Delegate where necessary and make your staff feel trusted.
  • Set high standards for performers and assist their personal development.
  • Model confidence and enthusiasm; be positive, honest and optimistic.
  • Set hard but achievable long, medium and process goals.
  • Put yourself in your athlete’s shoes – if the positions were reversed; which approach do you think you would perform most effectively under? Use imagery if necessary. Make sure they enjoy what they do.
  • Use pre-determined ‘keywords’ to get across tactical information (practice in simulation training).
  • Attribute success to internal/stable factors (ability) and failure to external or unstable factors (e.g. bad luck, refereeing, lack of effort, form). See Fig. 2 below.
Fig. 2 Weiner’s Attribution Theory
Here’s my own examples of good and bad leaders. See if you can work out which is which:


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