Management the Arsenal Way

October 15, 2014

The recent, revealing interview with Andries Jonker, head of the Arsenal academy, provides considerable food for thought as the club and its shareholders prepare for Thursday’s Annual General Meeting.

Because Jonker does not seem shy about sharing his opinions with the Dutch publication Voetball International (translated on Arseblog in “Jonker: Arsenal scouting must be restructured“), his observations offer an unvarnished view of management practice at the club. In particular, Jonker’s descriptions of manager Arsène Wenger’s approach to management don’t necessarily line up with widespread notions about how the club is run.

The conventional wisdom has long held that Wenger is a micro-manager, someone who must control every aspect of the club’s business from transfer negotiations to players’ diets to the design of facilities. This is the theory Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher advanced forcefully in their 2009 book “Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub.” It also flows from the popular tendency to equate football clubs with their managers. (See “Arsenal, Arsène Wenger, and the Cult of Personality” for my critique of this line of thinking.)

Perhaps Wenger has mellowed in recent years; it’s also possible the original portrayal was too stark. Whatever the case, Jonker’s interview suggests that Wenger’s style is not autocratic and in many ways conforms to models of successful leadership.

The manager’s level of involvement

Jonker describes his interactions with Wenger in ways that will seem familiar to anyone who has ever worked for someone else. “Almost every day, Wenger and I go through a number of things,” said Jonker. “He is approachable, but I do have to show him what we are doing. We must not go behind his back.”

This seems like a reasonable, open-door approach to management.

“What I do see,” Jonker continued. “is that everybody at the club has the feeling that they need to have the green light from Wenger before they do anything.”

Now, if “everybody at the club,” including Chief Executive Officer Ivan Gazidis and the stewards at Emirates Stadium, seeks Wenger’s approval, then that’s not a functional arrangement. I’m more inclined to think, however, that Jonker is referring Wenger’s involvement with the football staff, which is a different and more understandable proposition.

It’s not unusual for managers to expect those reporting to them to produce recommendations for their response and approval. This is a standard approach in many organizations and a sensible one in the case of Arsenal.

After all, Wenger is accountable to Gazidis, the club’s board, its supporters, and the media, so he should know about and support the actions of his staff. How could he appear before any of those constituents and endorse the sporting direction if he had not understood and supported the original course of action?

Foundations in management theory

This pattern of manager-staff communication falls within what management theorists call “transactional leadership.” This facet of leadership focuses on exchanges between leaders and followers; managers who want their staff to provide specific things give those staff members other things that they want in return. (The original idea comes from Karl Kuhnert and Philip Lewis, “Transactional and transformational leadership: A constructive developmental analysis,” in Academy of Management Review 10 (1995).)

Wenger seems to be practicing “active” management in the sense that he monitors his staff’s behavior, anticipates problems, and creates opportunities to intervene before the problems get worse. (For the details of “active” vs. “passive” management, see Jane Howell and Bruce Avolio, “Transformational leadership, transactional leadership, local of control, and support of innovation: Key predictors of consolidated business-unit performance,” in Journal of Applied Psychology 78 (1993).)

These behaviors and actions, which amount to exchanges between leaders and staff members, complement other defining characteristics of what’s called transformational leadership. These higher-level traits and activities take the form of:

  1. Charisma that appeals to followers on an emotional level
  2. Inspirational motivation that articulates a clear and attractive vision
  3. Intellectual stimulation that challenges assumptions, takes risks, and solicits followers’ ideas
  4. Individualized consideration that results in mentorship and attention to followers’ needs

These are the four dimensions of transformational leadership described by Timothy Judge and Ronald Piccolo in “Transformational leadership: A meta-analytic test of their relative validity,” in the Journal of Applied Psychology 89 (2004) and examined for their correlations with positive performance outcomes.

Wenger as “transformational leader”

Without sinking too deep into the academic theory and language, we can use the four dimensions of transformational leadership to understand how any manager’s behaviors and actions create conditions for top performance. In the case of Wenger, we can break down his contributions as follows:

Charisma. Before and after the FA Cup victory in May, current players talked about how much they wanted to win this trophy for Wenger. Many former players came out with impassioned support as well. This is just a recent, prominent episode suggesting that Wenger has built an emotional appeal among many of those who work for him.

Inspirational motivation. The vision of attractive, offense-minded football appeals to many both inside and outside the club. Wenger also displays the optimism that this approach will succeed in the long run, another aspect of inspirational motivation.

Intellectual stimulation. It’s fair to say that Wenger challenges assumptions and takes risks, as I recently pointed out in “Arsène Wenger’s Risk Tolerance.” He allows players considerable autonomy on the pitch. Questions persist, however, about his willingness to entertain other ideas. So we should refrain from making a definitive statement about how well Wenger fulfills this dimension.

Individualized consideration. If you listen to experienced players such as Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky, Wenger emerges as a mentor and model they may follow when their playing careers end. And one of the criticisms levied at the manager is that he responds too much to what players need, granting their wishes to leave Arsenal for more playing time elsewhere, for example. That’s definitely an indication of individualized consideration.

This admittedly superficial review does suggest that Wenger fulfills many expectations of the transformational leader. It’s hard to conclude that he is not, given that he has guided the sporting side of the club during an 18-year period characterized by significant, and in many ways positive, change.

One last test of Wenger’s leadership ability remains: What will happen when he departs the scene?


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