Leadership Perception in Premier League Teams: Finding the ‘right man’ for the Job

Published: 22 Jun 2017

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The subject of leadership has a long history, with roots going back to classical leadership approaches as far as Plato. The relevance of managers and leadership in a sporting context is undisputed ever since Sir Alex Ferguson began to teach leadership at Harvard Business School. Researchers worldwide have testified to the importance of this research stream and its value has been recognised by academics and organisations alike. Sports companies especially acknowledge the value of effective leadership and appeal to academic departments to further research this area to provide a better understanding of its nuances. Jacky Mueller, a PhD student at Loughborough University London has been investigating, as part of her PhD research study, perceptions of leadership within a sporting context and is looking to obtain insights from Premier League Football teams.

Manager tenures in the English Premier League have decreased significantly over the last years resulting in merely 1.55 years spent at one club per manager on average. Those ‘hiring & firing practices’ are not only extremely costly but also often fail to result in an increased performance of the team. This observation paired with the fact that player-manager relationships tend to be either positive, with players following the manager, or damaging with players avoiding and disobeying the manager, purely based on their perception and experience. Congruently it becomes increasingly important for Premier League teams to find ‘the right man’ for the job which not only fits the players but also the directors’ ideal leadership prototype.

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The pressing question for the boards of elite football teams at this stage is – How do we know who is the right person for us?  Through a focus shift towards followers’ perceptions by negating the default position of leader-centric research, one encounters the problem of idiosyncrasy. That is – the common assumption that there are as many different ways of looking at a phenomenon (Leadership) as there are observers (Players or board members). This creates the following problem in follower-centric research: if everyone has their own ideal leadership prototype in mind, how can one make sense of leadership and find the ‘right’ person? Building on recent advances in general leadership literature, Jacky’s study advances the proposition that there is a restricted number of qualitatively different ways of perceiving leadership in a sporting context. Such an approach enables the identification of context-specific understandings of leadership, thereby aiding the development of authentic leadership in teams, groups, and organisations.

Her PhD project ultimately aims to answer the following research question: how can we understand the variability of implicit leadership theories within and between sports organisations? Jacky is looking to conduct open interviews with three London-based Premier League Clubs within the second year of her PhD. First team players, managers and staff members of each club will be interviewed for a within - and between - club and organisation comparison.

A significant theoretical contribution can be expected as a result of Jacky’s study since the theoretical framework of social constructionism depicts a less explored path for theory development within this context. Furthermore, the sports environment provides an excellent opportunity to apply her research idea into a wider context as ‘teams’ can be more clearly defined. By enhancing the understanding of implicit leadership theories (ILTs) and introducing potential categories of shared ILTs, sports managers will be provided with practical suggestions:

  • Increased performance and management tenure resulting out of a better fit between perceived and ideal leadership behaviour
  • A more tailored leadership approach based on the needs of followers
  • Positively impact player’s motivation and maximise individual performance through a more distinct leadership approach

This article was written by Jacky Mueller, a PhD student at Loughborough University. Hear more about being a PhD student from Jacky here.

Loughborough University London is an ambitious and distinctive postgraduate campus on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park - home of the celebrated London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Launched in September 2015, Loughborough’s newest campus offers postgraduate taught and research programmes to meet the rapidly-developing needs of the design, digital, enterprise, media and sport industries. For more information, visit: www.lborolondon.ac.uk.


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