Delusions of significance…are you a candidate?

Posted January 20, 2010 in Latest News & Insights

Avatar may be winning at the box office, but The Damned United is a movie any leader should put on their personal watch list.  This is a classic and entertaining case study in what happens when a leader succumbs to delusions of significance.  And you don’t have to be a raving soccer fan (UK league obviously) to enjoy this movie.

The story features the 44 day (yes DAY) career of Leeds United coach Brian Clough.  It is an absolutely FASCINATING study in what happens when a leader starts believing their own hype.

Here’s a synopsis:  Clough who, with a great deal of help from his humble assistant Peter Taylor, pulled the perpetually losing Derby County soccer club from the bottom of the heap to win their division 2 championship.  At the same time, Leeds United, under the paternal guidance of a chap named Don Revie, were dominating the prestigious Division 1 league.  Leeds in the 1970’s was THE team to beat and Revie had been their coach for 13 years.

Clough harbours a serious grievance against Revie because of a perceived personal snub at a Leeds vs. Derby game and goes on a personal mission to bring him down.

Clough gets his chance when his underdog Derby team gets bumped into Division 1 and takes out Leeds.  And that’s when Brian Clough really starts to implode.

His arrogance is a vision to behold.  Brian Clough falls into a classic management trap and begins to truly believe that the achievements of the Derby team are to his credit and his credit alone.

Clough has some classic leadership strengths: risk taking, action orientation, persuasive (he’s a natural sales person and promoter) and he’s highly competitive.  But, (as discussed in an earlier post) like any great strengths, they create the double-edged sword of being an individual’s biggest Achilles heel.

For Clough, arguably his competitive instinct was what ultimately derailed him.  As his personal profile grew along with his ego, he started bad mouthing his Chairman (on tv no less!) and tendered a resignation to the Derby Board as a tactic to get the Chairman fired. The Chairman and the Board called his bluff and accepted the resignation.  This put Clough and his #2 Taylor out of jobs (he signed Taylor’s name to the resignation letter without his consent!).

But this is where it really gets interesting… and is frankly a side lesson in how easily misled people get in the recruiting process if they don’t do their due diligence.

The dust had barely settled on Clough’s sacking from Derby when Leeds United’s manager Don Revie accepts the top job to manage England leaving his coveted top spot Leeds open.  Despite the fact that Clough and Taylor had already accepted a job coaching Division 3 team Brighton and that Clough had been HIGHLY vocal about slamming Leeds and Don Revie’s management approach, Clough jumps ship when the Leeds Board offers him the top job.  Taylor stays in Brighton to honour his agreement and Clough starts to unravel.

What follows is a classic case study on what NOT to do when stepping in to the extra large shoes of a predecessor. Clough breaks every rule in the book by: slamming the much loved coach Revie, dismissing input from the team, ridiculing and minimizing their accomplishments under Revie (he reportedly said: “You can all throw your medals in the bin because they were not won fairly”) and on and on (check out a clip of Revie challenging Clough on his approach… it was taped the day Clough was fired!).

It takes exactly 44 days and 5 out of 6 losses for the Board of Directors and team to oust Clough.

So, here’s the take-away my fellow leaders…if you find yourself feeling pretty “chuffed” with your success, go out now and rent this movie.  It’s a great wake up call on those days when we start getting sucked into our own hype.

Keeping your own delusions of significance at bay is something every leader needs to pay attention to.  Oh, and as for Clough… it’s not all doom and gloom.  Clough learns his lesson, reunites with Taylor and goes on to be one of the UK’s most respected managers in the history of the game.  Leadership, afterall, is about getting back on the horse after being chucked off.

Happy leading!

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  1. Interesting you discuss both Clough and Obama on this site… both are ENFP’s (as am I which is why I am interested) Clough was a far greater leader than the Damned United portrays him as, read instead Clough’s War by Don Shaw or one of Clough’s own autobiographies (Walking on Water).
    ENPF’s do appear big headed, by have the charisma and drive to get things done their way, and inspire others to follow them.
    The Damned United is a shallow and insulting depiction of a great man.