Limits to Leadership

Sir Alex Ferguson.
Original Photo: Austin Osuide

The English Football Association has been leading a campaign against racism this week titled “Kick it Out”. In support, professional footballers were asked to wear T-shirts promoting the slogan and signalling their agreement. However, a number of players clearly felt that there has been a distinct lack of leadership – that the campaign has more to do with rhetoric than reality – and protested by refusing to wear the shirt.

Notable amongst the protesters was the Rio Ferdinand, who visibly angered his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, by his refusal. Sir Alex had previously said that everyone would be wearing the shirt and had told his players to do so. After learning that Ferdinand would not, Sir Alex accused Ferdinand of “embarrassing” him and announced that: “He’ll be dealt with, don’t worry about that.”

So how are we to interpret this in leadership terms? What it looks like is a clash of values. Those expressed by Sir Alex emphasised ‘personal loyalty’, ‘conformity’ and ‘compliance’. Ferdinand’s actions, however, indicated more concern with ‘principle’ and ‘independence of the individual.’ It is rumoured that this has cost him a £220K fine and who knows what in terms of his relationship with his boss.

The issue this raises is:

What do you do if your people hold different values from you?

There is, of course, no simple answer to this. It is up to everyone with leadership responsibilities to decide on what they feel is the right response for them. However, two things that are certain is that it will always make people uncomfortable if you ask them to do something that compromises their values, and that it is ethically questionable to try to make someone change their values.

Which also makes it important for leaders to make sure they know what their own values are, and what values their people hold.

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