Soccer Club Leadership Styles: Which One Is Best For Your Club

The Coaching Manual

Oct 3rd 2019

Written by The Coaching Manual

As the Director of Coaching, you’re the key decision-maker at your soccer club or academy.


You have the final say on a wide range of sporting and operational matters. Recruitment, staff development, club culture and coaching philosophy are just some of the areas within your remit.


Essentially, you’re involved in almost everything that happens at your organisation. Your style of leadership will therefore have a huge impact on people throughout the club, from coaches to administrative staff, to other members of the backroom team, and even the players.


But what is your natural leadership style? How are you perceived by the people beneath you? And would a different approach yield better results?


What are “leadership styles”, and why are they relevant to soccer clubs?

Think back through the history of soccer.


From Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson to Juventus under Giovanni Trapattoni, every successful club has been underpinned by a strong leader. A leader whose players and staff intrinsically understood what is expected of them in any given scenario. But the way those managers instilled a winning environment within their respective clubs – in other words, their leadership styles – varied significantly.


There are three traditional types of leadership style that can be seen across all levels of the beautiful game, from amateur sides to elite clubs. Whether or not you’re aware of it, your own leadership style will almost certainly fall into one or more of the following categories:


  • Autocratic
  • Democratic
  • Laissez-faire


Your style will affect the way you communicate with your coaches and players, your attitude to the game, and the way you respond to challenges. So it’s in your interest to take the time to define your methods and consider their impact on your club or academy. With that in mind, we’ll now take a more in-depth look at each leadership style:


What is autocratic leadership?

  • Tends to make all the decisions
  • Motivated by completing tasks quickly and effectively


The classic soccer manager. Whether loud and aggressive or quiet and contemplative, autocratic leaders shoulder the burden of responsibility for the vast majority of decisions. They’re unlikely to react positively to being offered advice; they know best, and their approach is the correct approach. Anyone that suggests otherwise is a potential threat to their leadership.


Unsurprisingly, autocrats tend to be poor delegators. They crave control over every aspect of the club, so on the rare occasions that they do delegate to a member of their team, it’s likely that they consider the task unimportant and not worthy of their attention.


As with all three leadership styles, there are pros and cons to the autocratic approach.


On the plus side, it tends to be highly effective in making quick decisions and imposing them across a large coaching team and playing squad. The sort of person well-suited to steering a club through a crisis, such as a relegation battle.


However, on the flip side, autocratic leaders do little to promote independent thought in players and coaches. In fact, they may actively oppose it. This inevitably leads to friction; consider the number of high-profile players who were swiftly sold by Manchester United during the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson, a classic autocratic leader.


To continue this example, the departure of an autocratic leader can leave a gaping void at the club. Coaches and players who were used to being dictated to suddenly find themselves without a safety net. It’s little surprise, therefore, that Manchester United have struggled so much since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.


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What is democratic leadership?

  • Tends to share decision-making responsibilities
  • Ready and willing to delegate key tasks


Democratic leaders are happy to discuss important decisions. They may form a leadership group of senior coaches and players to regularly talk through key plans and scenarios, and to help them define future strategy.


Whereas autocratic leaders are often vehemently opposed to sharing responsibility, democrats actively welcome delegation. In fact, they may use it as a tactic to help them develop stronger relationships with figures throughout the club. The theory goes that by apportioning ownership of key tasks to a group of people, the group will therefore work harder and grow closer, buoyed by their shared purpose.


Democrats tend to be better than autocrats at building a sense of unity within a club. Coaches and players are trusted to contribute toward the decision-making process, which naturally makes them feel more invested in the group and the club as a whole. Additionally, democrats are often able to make better decisions by considering a wide range of opinions, rather than just their own.


However, democratic leaders are less well-suited than autocrats to taking rapid action to solve a timely problem. The democratic approach naturally creates bureaucracy, which can be a major roadblock to fast decision-making.


What is laissez-faire leadership?

  • Tends to stand aside and allow coaches and players to make decisions as a group
  • Provides the tools and resources for staff to function independently


It takes a bold leader to willingly implement the laissez-faire approach. More often, it happens organically, with players and coaches taking matters into their own hands because they’ve lost faith in the leader’s vision or ability to guide them.


When executed effectively, this approach essentially becomes a supercharged version of democratic leadership. Rather than making decisions themselves, the leader becomes a conduit for enabling the playing or coaching group to make their own decisions. This can be extremely empowering, with everyone at the club sharing equally in successes and failures.


However, the downsides are significant. With no ultimate decision-maker, groups can quickly become unfocused and unmotivated. Arguments are frequent, and it becomes all too easy to simply throw in the towel when mistakes are made.


Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United team are a fine example of the pros and cons of laissez-faire leadership in action.


During the first half of the 1995-96 season, Keegan’s approach – essentially, assembling a potent attacking team and allowing them to dictate structure and tactics on the fly – worked wonders, amassing a 12-point lead at the top of the table by February.


But the signing of holding midfielder David Batty and attacker Faustino Asprilla in the February transfer window forced Newcastle to shift away from the simplicity of a 4-4-2 to a more complex 4-2-3-1 formation in order to accommodate the new acquisitions. With a lack of direction from their manager, the team struggled to adapt, were shorn of their attacking edge, and ultimately lost the title race.


Conclusion: Which leadership style is right for you?

None of the three leadership styles is innately better than the others. As we’ve shown, each has its major strengths and key weaknesses. So which is right for your club?


The answer is to blend the best parts of all three while attempting to steer clear of the weaknesses. Natural autocrats should learn to delegate more effectively; democrats should strive to streamline the decision-making process; laissez-faire leaders should understand when they need to give coaches and players some slack, and when they need to step in and tighten the reins.


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