7 Life Lessons from Jose Mourinho's 2018

January 3, 2019

 

To absolutely no-one's surprise, the Jose Mourinho era at Manchester United collapsed in acrimonious fashion just before Christmas. The warning signs were there all through a tempestuous summer, but for me, reached critical point by the end of September. Nonetheless, while the football was dull for more than a year before his dismissal, Jose's tenure provided a fascinating case study for anyone interested in decision-making under uncertainty, performance evaluation and leadership. Frankly, despite Mourinho's history, it didn't have to end this way. It's always better to learn from someone else's mistakes, so here are some things I learned from (or were reinforced by) Jose Mourinho's terrible 2018:

 

1. Reinvent yourself or die. I initially disagreed that "the game had passed Mourinho by", but his inability to coax coherent performances from his team eventually led me to concede that whatever tactical genius he once possessed had dissipated. In many ways, Mourinho seemed a prisoner of his stunning success at a young age. Perhaps he was unwilling to go through the painful change of breaking free from his prior orthodoxy. Or perhaps he was hostage to the others' expectations - such as fans and the Manchester United hierarchy - that he could generate results quickly. Whatever the case, the lesson is clear: if you are unwilling to reinvent yourself, regardless of how it may damage your ego or how others perceive you, you will eventually wither into obscurity. 

 

2. But reinvent yourself thoughtfully! One of the stranger things about the past 5 months was the sense that Mourinho had no clear vision for how to change the team. The style of play was disjointed, with no discernible framework. Instead, Mourinho engaged in lengthy discussions about how he *thought* United should play, starting to resemble the football 'Einsteins' he'd so pilloried. Reinvention is of course easier said than done - it may be evolution rather than revolution, and it should never sacrifice timeless qualities for fads. It appears, unfortunately, that Mourinho never struck this balance at United. 

 

3. "Focus on process, not outcomes" is right in theory, hard in practice. I defended Mourinho's first season as a victory of process over outcomes. His second season, however, was far harder to characterize. The overall level of football stagnated, but there were some clear successes (notably, finishing 2nd in the Premiership). My inclination is usually to be patient, so I believed Jose had done enough to earn a third season at United. But this season was sufficiently poor to make clear to all but the staunchest Mourinho defender that he had lost the team. In many ways, this reflects the challenging nature of deciding when to pull the plug on all kinds of investments - financial, personal relationships or otherwise. I don't think there are any easy solutions here, other than this: when it's clear that something isn't working, move quickly. For once, the United hierarchy acted with alacrity. 

 

4. Leadership really, really matters. I generally tend to push back against the "great man theory" of history, and as an investment analyst, often focus on a business's competitive advantage. But Mourinho's failure - and the relatively quick turnaround under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - is a reminder that management and leadership are of crucial importance. It's as simple as providing a clear, understandable set of instructions, demanding high standards without belittling team members, and taking responsibility for failure (perhaps Mourinho needs to read about Danny Meyer's saltshaker theory). And it's about much more than a single individual. It's perhaps no great shock that Mourinho's collapse came in the wake of the departure of his trusted lieutenant, Rui Faria. Even the greatest leader needs to build a strong supporting cast. 

 

5. Be careful what you wish for. Managing Manchester United always seemed like Mourinho's dream job. He never hid his admiration for the club's history and prestige. And yet, by the end, to hear him tell it, he, Scott McTominay and Marouane Fellaini were the only ones pulling their weight at the club. Let's not pretend that Ed Woodward and the Glazers have covered themselves in glory here. Any questions about leadership and accountability go right to the top. So there's room for improvement in so many aspects of how the club is run, but it's a sad truth that dream jobs, partners and life events rarely live up to the hype. 

 

6. Make the most of what you've got. I defended Mourinho for much of his second season, and even agreed with his summertime criticism of United's transfer policy and tour arrangements. But at some point you have to accept what you have and resolve to wring every last ounce of it (see Pochettino, M., 2018). The current United squad has some clear deficiencies but is significantly better than Jose insisted. Ultimately, the performances on the pitch were a self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity. 

 

7. Opportunities arise in the strangest ways. Ok, this is more about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's 2018. It seemed like his ill-fated Cardiff spell had put paid to his chances of the top job at United. But he took some time off, went back to Molde, continued to succeed, and lo and behold, another opportunity arose out of the blue. The moral of the story is no more earth-shattering than a simple reminder to take adversity on the chin, learn its lessons and continue to do good work. The rest will take care of itself.

 

Wishing you all a happy 2019 that is more Solskjaer and less Mourinho.

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