The Creative Leader – Arsene Wenger


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What makes a creative leader? Creativity, as an intangible quality, is difficult to describe in fundamental terms. Likewise, leadership is another virtue that cannot be easily qualified as the impacts of true leadership are far-ranging and difficult to measure. Couple these two qualities together and what you get is an exceptionally abstract concept that becomes even more challenging to qualify. However, in Leadership Without Easy Answers, Dr Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University manages to provide an in-depth analysis and description of creative leadership. Heifetz ultimately describes leadership as an activity that mobilises people and guides them towards adaptive change. What I hope to achieve is to describe creative leadership through a model example – a person who, in his everyday conduct, exemplifies the essence of creative leadership.

Arsène Wenger, OBE (Order of the British Empire), was born on 22 October 1949. He is best known as – and currently is – the manager of Arsenal Football Club, which plays in the Barclays English Premier League. What is most impressive about Wenger is that in the modern environment of football, where managers are regularly chopped and changed, he has managed to stay at the helm of Arsenal since 1996. Compared to most other clubs, Wenger has maintained in the top managerial position for 17 years; which is testament not only to the longevity of his leadership, but also to Arsenal’s loyalty to its staff. I propose that Wenger possesses strong leadership qualities – many of which correlate to Heifetz’s description of leadership – which earned him the respect and admiration of many peers and fans, reasons the moniker ‘Le Professeur’ was coined.

Heifetz defines leadership “as an activity – the activity of a citizen from any walk of life mobilising people to do something”. This model of leadership would evidently apply to Wenger, whom in his occupation as the manager of a football club, is responsible for the management of the players on the club’s payroll. Wenger’s leadership role includes – on a macro-scale, the strategies to lead Arsenal to domestic and European league success; managing the financial expenditures of Arsenal; strategies to retain and satisfy club fans and stakeholders. On the micro-scale, Wenger is responsible for team selections and tactics to achieve day-to-day match victories; for press conferences and club representation; for the motivation and management of the club’s players. All of these leadership roles – which are by no means exhaustive – are linked to Heifetz’s succinct, though rudimentary, definition of leadership, which certainly qualifies Wenger as a ‘leader’. In his leadership roles, Wenger is always expected to ‘mobilise’ and ‘activate’ people towards a certain means; be it to persuade the Arsenal board to spend money on players; to encourage the fans to get behind the club; or to motivate the players to win the immediate game or the long-term championship. Through Wenger’s almost-synonymous association with Arsenal, he should most definitely be considered a leader of Arsenal Football Club.

Furthermore, Heifetz qualifies that leadership “as an activity” is all about “adaptive work”. The complexity of modern-day standards and communication force modern-day leaders to be constantly ready to adapt to revolutionary challenges arising from their scope of work. That modern standards differ from person to person merely complicates the task of modern leaders, as leaders must be versatile and flexible enough to manage “competing value perspectives”. Since his appointment at Arsenal in 1996 to the modern day, Wenger has overseen the passage of many player generations, consistently reinventing his teams to meet the different challenges of English football. Upon Wenger’s arrival, Arsenal successfully wrested the English Premier League title in 1997.

In 2003 Wenger managed ‘the Invincibles’, where Arsenal won the League unbeaten – a historic record that stands till today. 2006 saw Arsenal’s momentous move from their iconic Highbury satdium to Ashburton Grove. In recent times, Arsenal had to deal with nouveau riche clubs Chelsea and Manchester City, whose foreign owners invested huge amounts of funding to attract world-class players. On the financial front, Arsenal also have had to deal with the UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations, which kicked in starting 2011, requiring clubs to adhere strictly to certain financial regulations. This short timeline essentially details the changing landscapes of English football that Wenger had to deal with as Arsenal manager. Wenger managed to reconcile Arsenal’s principles with the changing “mix of values” of the environment, all without threatening the stability of Arsenal. The fact that for the past 14 years, Arsenal have managed to maintain at least a top 4 position in the English Premier League demonstrates Wenger’s success in light of changing environments and adaptive challenges within English football.

Thus far, Wenger’s leadership capabilities as an agent of Arsenal have been well-established. However, associating Wenger with Heifetz’s fundamental leadership model seems to simplify and underrate Wenger’s all-encompassing leadership qualities. Indeed, Heifetz believes that the hallmarks of adaptive leadership extend to inherent qualities within the leader, not only the conditions imposed by the surrounding environment. Self-belief, openness to change, accepting responsibility and information distribution are several tenets of adaptive leadership that Heifetz identifies as key to leaders. Subsequent to the disassembly of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ team of 2003, Wenger embarked on a revolution of Arsenal’s tactical philosophy. Where Arsenal’s teams of old were built on a meld of toughness and flair, Arsenal’s new focus shifted to technical proficiency through possession football. Despite the derision from football analysts, Wenger stuck to his beliefs and moulded an Arsenal team that approached each game with a view to dominate possession and patiently wear down opponent’s defences. Foremost in Wenger’s ideology was a flexibility to change – apparent in the shift in tactical philosophy, which he backed up with a stubborn belief in his players and player empowerment. Wenger’s actions correlate to what Heifetz considered key to adaptive leadership, by sticking to his beliefs despite fierce opposition, taking ownership and responsibility for his decisions whilst trying his best to gradually ease fans and observers to see the logic behind his choices.

Perhaps the best example of Wenger’s creative leadership is his direction and policy for Arsenal, which takes into account both Wenger’s innate belief and the financial climate that has loomed upon English football in recent years. The generation that succeeded Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ were focused on youth development, which culminated in Wenger’s 2009 team which fielded an average age of 22 years 238 days – the 2nd youngest team in the history of the English Premier League. Wenger’s faith in his young team was largely decried by football analysts, recalling pundit Alan Hansen’s famous 1995 comment “you will never win anything with kids”. However, Wenger faithfully stood by his team and even though Arsenal still has not won any trophy of note, Arsenal is famously successful off-the-pitch, posting half-year pre-tax profits of £17.8 million in 2012. Wenger’s financial prudence – coupled with his faith in the club’s youth – has kept Arsenal sustainable and profiting year-on-year in light of the extravagant climate of world football today. Wenger’s management of Arsenal belies a sense of ownership towards the club, which affirms Heifetz’s description of a creative and adaptive leader.

Despite Wenger’s apparent overwhelming leadership characteristics, there are still certain limitations that he could arguably improve on. Heifetz intimates that creative leaders have to skillfully manage people’s expectations, regulating the pace of change for them. Perhaps Wenger’s steadfast belief in his philosophies caused him to alienate the most important stakeholders in his field of work – Arsenal’s fans. The fans were used to victories and trophies, and the seemingly self-imposed barren 8 years were hard to bear. Their desire for an influx of experienced transfer signings seemed neglected by Wenger’s commitment to youth and financial prudence. Wenger’s failure to accommodate both fans’ desire for trophies and his own management philosophy inhibited Arsenal’s progress as stakeholders possessed differing and sometimes conflicting views. Wenger had perhaps pushed the fans too hard, where instead patience and empathy would have served him better. Yet, this example only goes to show how difficult and finely balanced the responsibilities facing leaders are. Observers often are critical when instead empathy should be expressed in view of creative leaders’ tough challenges.

Leadership manifests in countless ways and as a result, this ideology is difficult to qualify. Creative leadership, being even more specific, complicates this process of description. In providing a model of creative leadership, Heifetz creates a framework which I believe Wenger exemplifies. He certainly demonstrates the key tenets of creative leadership by being a flexible, responsible communicator who mobilises and educates people in the face of adaptive challenges. All of these characteristics affirm Wenger’s leadership capabilities, which lends to the belief that he is the most-qualified person to lead Arsenal out of their current plight. With such a creative leader at the helm, Arsenal fans should not panic and instead should continue to believe: in Wenger, we trust.

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