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Page last updated at 11:20 GMT, Wednesday, 18 March 2009

What if Brian Clough were your office manager?

Brian Clough gives a seminar
Photo montage of how Clough might look in an office setting

By Simon Hancock
BBC News Magazine

In the football world, there are few who would dispute that Brian Clough was a managerial genius. But what if fate determined that he ended up in your office's logistics division?

The film The Damned United, released this week, fictionalises the 44 days Brian Clough spent managing Leeds United before riling so many people at the football club that he got the boot.

Lifting the European Cup
Born 1935
Prolific striker for Middlesbrough and Sunderland
Playing career cut short by injury
Successfully managed Derby County and Nottingham Forest
But lasted just 44 days at Leeds
Won European Cup '79 and '80
Retired '93, battled alcoholism, died 2004

Despite this episode, people often speak in reverential terms of Clough's managerial qualities and it's true that he propelled two relatively small clubs - Nottingham Forest and Derby County - to success they could only dream of today. To some, he is the greatest manager England never had.

He was as well known for his brash, charismatic, unorthodox approach as he was for his success, but what if he and his gift for management had been transplanted from his natural football environment into the wider world of work?

Here Professor Stefan Szymanski, of the Cass Business School, and Murray Steele, senior lecturer at the Cranfield School of Management, examine how Clough's skills might have transferred into business.


Clough focused on the players' needs

"Every company will say they care deeply for their people, but with Clough that really seems to have been the case," says Prof Szymanski.

Clough's concern for his workers stemmed from a deep belief that it was his staff that delivered him the results, not ground-breaking tactics or the manager's pitchside gesticulations.

"It was socialism if you like," says Prof Szymanski. "You do see this idea in business sometimes. The focus was on the needs of his players. These were his frontline staff - they're the ones under the pressure, they're the ones who deliver, so you need to meet their needs whatever it takes."

I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one

It sounds like an approach many workers would like from their line manager, but Clough would go to extremes. You probably wouldn't want him to overhear a discussion of a personal problem.

"He'd watch you like a hawk. If he knew a player of his had an alcohol or gambling problem, he would literally follow them around," explains Prof Szymanski.

Three players whose potential clough nurtured (pic: Allsport)
Clough made players believe they were better than past evidence suggested

Clough had a knack for spotting the talent in individuals who were underperforming and turning them into superstars.

Players like Garry Birtles, John McGovern and Martin O'Neill, whose careers were built on qualities veiled to many but easily spotted by Clough.

This ability to spot hidden talent is one that many under-valued workers might hope for in their boss.

Clough was no fan of high-fliers or sycophants. Rather you could imagine him stalking the corridors of an organisation looking for disgruntled, wasted human resources.

We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right

And if Clough spotted something in Claire, currently languishing in IT, he would go to extraordinary lengths to ensure her departmental transfer.

Prof Symanski explains how Clough would go to the house of his target to talk to them about a proposed move. If they weren't there, he would stay the night, even offering to help do the washing up and the cooking while he waited.


Clough would demand complete obedience and created a climate of fear in which no one could question his decisions. Even the fiercest players were afraid of him.

Roy Keane
I only ever hit Roy the once - he got up so I couldn't have hit him very hard

In the office, it's unlikely inclusive round-table discussions would be a fixture, and anyone voicing reservations about his strategic re-branding exercise could easily find themselves subject to his violent temper, or worse.

Both academics agree that while governing by fear, rather than committee, is a recognised management style, Clough would find himself hauled before HR today.

"In 2009 you can use fear tactics a bit - and maybe during the recession it could work while people are scared of losing their job, but it only works short term," says Mr Steele.

"He'd quickly discover that people he wanted to get rid of knew their rights and would wait around for a pay-off cheque before leaving - he'd get very frustrated."

Prof Szymanski adds: "He was a very overbearing employer, incredibly paternalistic - like Stalin and just as frightening."


Clough knew exactly where he was trying to get to, and had the charisma, and the bullying, to ensure people bought into it.

He always gave very clear, simple instructions to his players about their precise roles, often boiling these down to one key thing he expected them to focus on - tackling a single opponent, for instance, or keeping the ball on the ground.

They knew exactly what they had to do, taking all decision-making out of their hands. They needed only to think about achieving this one thing.

Translated to the workplace, this approach sounds a bit, well, dull. Repeatedly tackling might be all very well, but focusing solely on perfecting formulae in Excel?

If God had meant football to be played in the air, He would have put grass in the sky

"This does work well in the retail environment," says Mr Steele. "Everyone is focused on satisfying the customer. They're all pulling towards that."

It might sound a bit stultifying, but Clough could always be trusted to mix it up.

"He sometimes used not to go to the dressing room at half time and the players would have to work out what to do. Management is always a question of balance."

Brian Clough
Instructions were kept simple

Possibly a more fun aspect of having Clough as your line manager would be never knowing what to expect.

Perhaps you'd turn up one dreary Monday morning to discover you were off to Spain for the week, and when the deadline pressure was really on, who knows?

Clough's methods of motivation were the stuff of legend.

One of the most famous examples was the night before a cup final when he took his players out drinking until the early hours, to de-stress them.

Sure enough, the next day they won.

The river Trent is lovely, I know because I have walked on it for 18 years

"This is not exactly classical management," says Mr Steele. "Players don't perform better with hangovers, but by taking their minds off the game, he relaxed them and calculated they were fit enough to recover."

And in the office, he would create an environment of chaos so employees would think about what he'd do next, rather than worrying about their sales figures. Which might also make for an interesting away-day.

Mavericks like Clough can have a difficult time in the business world, says Mr Steele.

"In any walk of life you find people who don't fit the mould are responsible for breakthroughs.

"But it's a mystery how they get to these positions in the first place. Those in management always say they like mavericks, but usually promote people in their own likeness."

But he thinks Clough, in allowing people to fail and take risks, could be a successful boss. Unless you like routine, in which case he'd be as "frightening as hell".

Clough himself never over-analysed his management technique.

"They tell me people have always wondered how I did it. That fellow professionals and public alike have been fascinated and puzzled and intrigued by the Clough managerial methods and technique and would love to know my secret. I've got news for them - so would I," he said.

And if anyone could put their finger on what it was about Clough's management style that made him so successful, says Prof Szymanski, they would already be copying it.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I disagree. I don't think Clough would fit into the modern workplace one iota. He'd be too brash, would upset the women with his alpha male views, and he could never hack the bureaucracy of an organisation. Rather like me, he'd be chomping at the bit looking for freedom.
RC, Cardiff

Although I don't particularly follow football, I was born in Nottingham and grew up near Derby during the Clough years, so he couldn't be ignored. What I most remember was one of his failures. Forest was in the Cup Final against Chelsea; it was a draw at full-time and still a draw at the end of the first period of extra time. The opposition's manager gathered his team round him and gave them a pep talk, told them how well they'd done up to now and how they could still win the game. Cloughie sat in the dugout, arms folded, with a look of thunder on his face. Not a word to his team. I knew then that Forest would lose - and they did. I know nothing about football, but it was an unforgettable lesson in management.
Robert Day, Coventry, UK

In the late 1970s I was taught an Open University course on Urban Development at Nottingham University. It included a bus tour of the city, driven by the Nottingham Forest official driver, it being the off season. I had to listen to reverential stories of Clough's personal and managerial qualities - of how the ground staff, the dinner ladies and the junior players were just as important to the manager as were Gary Birtles and Martin O'Neil. One of the driver's first experiences of Clough was when he transported the players for a training run in a local park. The manager ordered the driver to join them. His protests, that he was too old and unfit, were dismissed. "I don't give a toss about that - if you drive for Nottingham Forest you must be the fittest driver in the First Division. Get out." On another occasion the bus was at Heathrow to collect the team from a European fixture. Clough pushes through the crowd, ignores the press and presents the driver with a huge bouquet of flowers for his wife, who was ill in hospital. Two small incidents to Clough, but massive gestures to the driver. Touches of humanity, socialism, paternalism or excellent managerial skills?
Mike Batty, Leicester

I'd like nothing more than to have a Brian Clough as my manager, guaranteed to being the best results from you, even if he'd be giving HR one hell of a headache.
Michael Dunn, Cambridge

A factor which distinguished clough as a master manager was also his ability to understand the whole club. He also new the kit lady needs as much as his players. Also the ability to manage upwards to the board and his customers the paying public. Clough was a master in the sale like as Shankley, Busby, Paisley and Sir Alex. I work in the business sector and have been in management and I certainly look at these great man managers abilities and try to adopt the philosophies to my roles.
Tim W, Bristol

Somebody has put their finger on it and is copying it. Jose Mourinho is the modern day Cloughie, in the way that he creates an atmosphere a his clubs where everyone knows that he is the boss, but everyone is ready to fight for him and for one another. It's that same attention to detail in dealing with people that Cloughie had. And it is still worth the extra 10% in tight situations.
Paul, London

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