We’ve all seen it or heard about it – stories of top football coaches shouting, throwing things all in the name of getting the best out of their players. From Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary temper in the changing rooms, to Graham Taylors’ touchline fury broadcast in the 1994 BBC documentary ‘An Impossible Job’, you could be forgiven for making the assumption that a short temper is critical for success in football management. But is it? Whilst these two examples are likely more reflective of the pressure of managing Manchester United or, perhaps even worse, the England Football Team, it is easy to make the link between these angry outbursts and a directive, autocratic style of leadership and to assume that this is the most effective way to get the best out of teams.
On the eve of the 2014 World Cup in Rio, the world’s media spotlight will again be on the touchline during games, witnessing the actions of the coaches. It is timely then to take a look at what the research says about which coaching style creates the most successful teams, and whether the autocratic style is really the best way, be it in football or in other team sports.
It is important to note that football management is a complex task and success of a football team is likely due to numerous factors that extend beyond the leadership style of the coach. These include availability of resources, governance, quality of players and the stability of the team. However, studies have shown that there exists a strong relationship between team cohesion and success (Carron, Bray & Eys, 2002) and team cohesion is related to leadership behaviour (Ramzaninezhad & Kehstan, 2009). Results of the latter study indicated that increases in Iranian football players’ perceptions of team cohesion was positively correlated with perceptions of their coach exhibiting higher levels of social support, positive feedback, democratic behaviour and lower levels of autocratic behaviour.
So a democratic style is better for team cohesion, so that must be the more effective style. But is it that clear cut? Chelladurai’s Multi-dimensional model of leadership stresses the importance of a leader fitting their style to the needs of the team, with some authors suggesting an autocratic style can be effective when dealing with young and unpredictable teams (Weinberg & Gould, 2003). Further, where large squads of players are involved, it is possible that more autocratic styles will predominate by necessity since democratic styles have been shown to be less effective for complex problems and are more time consuming (Chelladurai & Doherty, 1998).
It appears, therefore, that it is not so much whether an autocratic style is more effective than a democratic, or supportive one, but rather whether the style is right for the situation and for the team. The importance of coach flexibility cannot be ignored, with a critical skill being the ability to perceive the needs of the team in the moment and to adapt as necessary to maximise team performance (Crust & Lawrence, 2006).