Managing In The Modern Game: Nigel Pearson - The Leader
In the latest instalment of Managing in the Modern Game, a series of interviews looking at specific elements of football management through the eyes of those involved, Dean Eldredge of Oporto Sports Management speaks to former Watford, Southampton and Leicester City boss Nigel Pearson, for his definition on what makes a good leader, whether his own style has evolved over time and what he takes from past roles to have a positive effect in the present…
Nigel, in the context of football management, what qualities do you believe contribute towards good leadership?
I think more than anything, there needs to be clarity in the message and an understanding of where people fit in to what you’re collectively trying to achieve. Leadership and management can differ greatly between people. You could walk in to a room and see who is calling the shots, as that person might be very visible, or have an aura or magnetism that is apparent. It could be content, tone of voice, or something like that which tells you they are in charge. If you were to look at this in the context of where I’ve worked most recently (Watford Head Coach, December 2019 to July 2020), you need to be clear on where the starting point is, what the end point might look like and then how we’re going to get from A to B.
Another important aspect of leadership is growing an understanding in the group that they are a part of the journey you are going on. You have to prioritise the bonds and the messages in those first impressions when you join a club. Whether it is verbal or not, people need to know what the journey looks like, and know where they fit in and the impact they can have as an individual. For the person in a leadership position, they need to have an understanding of the circumstances they are in, the climate, and the emotional factors versus the reality, particularly in football clubs where people can think they are in a better or worse position due to the emotions that surround the game. The people who lead successful football teams are very good at knowing when to act and when to leave things as they are. Leading can be effecting change, or sometimes allowing things to play out, with moderate tweaking, and not always imposing your own visible personality on a place.
I love to delegate responsibility. I think delegation is misunderstood a lot, because there’s nothing worse than delegating to people who aren’t capable. One of my biggest enjoyments or fulfilments is to be a part of a team that creates or achieves something. People often want to judge this in terms of success, but success is always relative. I’ve taken great pleasure from seeing other people enjoying their work, and I see myself as part of a team. In many ways, as a football manager, I suppose I’m classed as being at the top of a pyramid, but I still strive to be a team player. In the modern game, in particular, it is vital to have good relationships upwards to the hierarchy as well as with your colleagues and staff. I find it humorous how people like to pigeonhole your persona and how you manage, and equally I don’t think these people would have a clue as to the reality of how you manage a football club. I started by saying there needs to be clarity, and you need to have an authenticity about how you work and live, as people can smell a fraud a mile off. Creating a culture, timescale-wise in a football club, is not necessarily as common now; clubs are more self-aware and more understanding of what type of person fits them as a leader. Sometimes you need a fresh approach and ideas, but the ethos still needs to be aligned.
I think personality and emotional intelligence, which is underplayed in football and in life, is very important for a leader. At the top level, you are dealing with an increasing variety of pressures to perform, and considering the unique situation we are in this year just adds more to the challenge.
Through your life and career, who has influenced your leadership style and in what way?
I suppose that through my upbringing at home, and through school and college, I’ve had experiences of being given responsibility to problem solve and achieve things, so you collect behavioural traits along the way.
I’ve talked about being self-aware too. Do we ever really like ourselves entirely? I don’t think so. You have to understand what you are. I’ve had lots of jobs in my career and I’ve been privileged to work with some good managers and coaches, and some bad ones too. What I will say, is that I learned a lot when I worked for The FA, and I was invited along with other players from my generation such as Stuart Pearce, Nigel Spackman and Paul Bracewell, to name a few, and we were introduced to international coaching. I worked for The FA for two-and-a-half years as a national coach, working alongside hugely experienced and knowledgeable people, in a player-centred culture where support mechanisms, player welfare and sports science were prevalent. This influenced me hugely as I developed my own style as a manager.
Howard Wilkinson is someone, who, if I were to ring someone up, I could ring Howard. He is a funny, sensitive and hugely knowledgeable football man, and I value his opinions. He’s had an effect on my career, having signed me for Sheffield Wednesday. You learn about yourself in different experiences. I feel lucky to have managed in all four domestic leagues, and people may class that as being a varied journey, but I learned from testing myself in certain situations, with varying resources.
After I’d finished at Carlisle United, I joined Stoke City and I worked as an assistant to Gary Megson, with John Rudge as the director of football. Gary was very hands-on as a manager, and John helped to take the pressure off him. I learned from that scenario, but it was the first time I’d worked in a structure with a director of football, which is far more common now. At West Brom, Bryan Robson would invite me to board meetings, at Newcastle I was shielded from the hierarchy, and at Southampton I got on very well with Leon Crouch, who sadly died in September 2019. I also enjoyed a good relationship with Lee Hoos, who was a big part of why I went on to manage Leicester City. I was trying to get on the same page as these people who had put faith in me. We had success at Leicester, working with Lee and Milan Mandaric. At Hull City, working with Adam Pearson was a game-changer for me. Adam was a go-to person, and he wouldn’t always say yes, but he would try and find a way to help us. He was excellent. I had, and still do have, a good working relationship with Susan Whelan at King Power. I knew where I sat in the organisation at Leicester and also later at OH Leuven. We always looked to create a solution, even if there was a compromise at times, which is inevitable in a big organisation.
Craig Shakespeare, for example, has been my assistant, but has also been a manager himself and may go on and manage again in the future. He would say, I’m sure, that you are your own man and you form your own opinions in the role.
I’ve talked about aura already, and it never ceases to amaze me that when people meet me, they say, ‘Oh, you’re much smaller than I thought you were.’ Is that something to do with my presence? I don’t know. I’ve learned to use the tools that I have. I’m approachable, I have warmth and I have humanity. I like the company of people, but I like to know where the lines are. When I’m in a position of authority, I’m still me, but there’s a difference. I don’t hide from the fact that when I’m out of work, I enjoy life and enjoy not being in the public eye.
It’s said that politicians spend half their lives working towards the top job, only to reach it and discover the power of the office is nowhere near as great as they assumed. Do you read any parallels with this analogy and modern football management, and how do you overcome this issue?
If what you’re looking for as a leader is power, that’s not my style of leadership. What comes with leadership is the weight of responsibility, which is only true if it’s a moral weight. That can erode your spirit and have a real negative effect on you. For some people, it’s all about power, possibly like Donald Trump? As you’re aspiring to get to the place you want to get to, your vision of that role is not necessarily accurate. The journey can be more rewarding than the destination. By climbing K2, the second highest mountain by the Abruzzi Spur route, there is ‘the bottleneck’. You have to go the same way up and the same way back. You’ll have another thirty-plus climbers and perhaps a few hours to the summit and return from there. Then you reach the top and look out and think, ‘I could die here’. What I’m saying is, if the outcome is just about achieving at any cost, getting drunk on success, that’s not for me. It has to be about the journey. Ego can kill you.
How do you perceive having authority? When you hear about inspirational people, and they lead through effect rather than action, it’s important to differentiate the alternative forms of being a leader.
If the right opportunity came along, I would work as an assistant again. Whether people would see me doing that, I don’t know. I think I could be a Sporting Director, for example. Don’t get me wrong, I am a manager and my real skills are working with people and how I channel my energies. For me it’s more about trying to discover what we want to be, by getting your hands dirty and experiencing leadership roles.
Has your leadership style evolved over time?
I have evolved, I must have evolved, but I’d say you’d have to ask someone like Craig Shakespeare, who’s been my colleague with a 5 year lull, because I don’t know. Sometimes you’re aware of change, and sometimes life slips by, a culmination of events happen and you learn from them.
I’ve worked and lived abroad, in Belgium. You change. I probably don’t dislike the parts about me quite as much as I used to dislike. I don’t really want to go in to specifics, but if people think I’ve done things in the past just for effect, well, it’s not the case. You can make errors, or your personality doesn’t allow you to react the way you’d like with hindsight. Experience certainly helps. What I’ve always tried to do is go through a reflective process, and I’ve always been a big critic of myself. I’d like to think I understand what my strengths and weaknesses are. I never name names, but when I see some people in the theatre of professional football acting, I smile. I find it interesting to see how people frame themselves. Sometimes, it might feel stage managed. If I look back at myself from a few years ago, I’d say that I was probably struggling to put my finger on what I wanted to do and a reaction came from that.
There are different ways of achieving success, but you still have to be authentic, otherwise you’ll be found out very quickly.
Given your reputation for turning around the fortunes of struggling clubs, either by saving them from relegation, or rebuilding them for promotion, what methods do you use to instigate an immediate reaction against the backdrop of time and pressure constraints?
You have to prioritise and not get bogged down on certain things. I invested as much time as possible at Watford in getting to know people and trying to understand them as individuals and their role at the club. I’ve kept in contact with some of those people and I get on well with them. In a role like that, you need to get the team organised, find out your best team, who is going to be robust and available and who’s backsides are going to twitch when the pressure is on. There’s no real point in discussing things like the development of facilities, a long-term view, as you have to deal in the here and now.
I think that being visible is very important, being there for people. I’d walk around the place and get to know people and interact with them. It’s all really simple stuff, actually, but the simple things get overlooked sometimes. If you can focus people, with clarity and direction, it can make a big difference.
You can’t do it too often, but you can pick the right times to admit you were wrong in a leadership position too. You have to understand when to use it, and show your humility and it can be a very effective tool.
How have you learned to overcome setbacks within the role and has this affected the way you manage?
There have been times when things haven’t worked out. Joining Derby was just a terrible decision. I think I took my eye off the team when I worked in Belgium, trying to affect things that I couldn’t affect, and misjudging others agendas. I spoke to Marc Brys when he took over this summer and offered to answer any questions he had. I’m sure that he will be reaping the benefits of some of the work I did around the club. Unfortunately for me, I did that work, but I lost my own job. That’s football though and you are judged on results. It was a lesson for me in understanding that I would have gone in with a different structure. I definitely learned about prioritising which helped me when I joined Watford, in focusing on what I could affect immediately.
If you have anything about yourself, you need to be honest when you leave a job and assess what you could have done differently and what you would do the same. You can’t just take the way you worked at one club and drop that method in to the next role though. Learn within context, basically.
What advice would you give to a young manager struggling to get their message across to players and staff in a new role?
I would ask myself, ‘Do I believe what I’m doing is right?’ People will say, ‘Get your senior players on side,’ but what if your senior players are the ones you need to get rid of? I’d say that you can’t be alone. You need to be able to trust somebody. The more that you internalise what you’re going through, the more likely you are to make mistakes. You can become more agitated and less trusting. People can sense fear or anxiety, so it’s important that you have people to talk to; your assistant, your boss, a colleague, a friend, maybe your partner. You need to ask the right questions and take feedback on board. Be clear in what you’re trying to get across. Show direction, don’t try and showcase your knowledge. It’s more about, ‘this is what we’re doing, and this is why we’re doing it’. There’s no one answer fits all, as every club and situation differs. No matter how much experience I have, I need to trust people. I need to ask people, and I need honesty. I don’t want yes people around me; I want people who will tell me if I’m wrong, and why. Most young managers have been experienced players, so they don’t lose their sense of what’s right, they just lose assurance as they are in an unfamiliar environment.
Finally, what are your ambitions for the future?
Until I received the call from Watford, I might not have thought I would manage in the Premier League again, but I know I can manage at that level. I’m good at what I do, and I know I can get better. I want to manage, I want to be successful, but most of all, I want to feel part of a team that has a clear direction and we are able to go on a positive journey together.
The Nigel Pearson you think you know isn’t the real Nigel Pearson. Tactile, rather than abrasive, people-focused, rather than reclusive, he’s the thoughtful father-figure with a reputation for getting in to the fabric of a club and building them in his own image.
His leadership style and subtle man-management skills are renowned with the players, staff and owners he’s worked with, and his knack of turning around ailing clubs was underlined last season when he resurrected Watford’s season and ended Liverpool’s unbeaten league run, before a surprising departure with two games remaining.
Pearson may be his own man, but his ability to empower people, valuing their contribution to the decision-making process, is just one example of how he maximises his resources and helps to create a positive, lasting culture. Just ask Leicester City how they became the club they are today, and they’ll point you in his direction.
After being thrust back in to the Premier League limelight just under a year ago, it feels as if Pearson is ready to take on the next challenge, in his own authentic style.
UEFA Pro Licence
UEFA A Licence
UEFA B Licence
Coach Educator Certificate
BA (Hons) History
The Open University – currently enrolled
Leicester City FC
Football League 1 champions – 2009
Football League Championship champions – 2014
Football League 1 Manager of the Month award – August 2008 & September 2008
Football League Championship Manager of the Month award – February 2010, January 2013, January 2014 and March 2014
LMA Championship Manager of the Year – 2014
Premier League Manager of the Month award – April 2015
First Division B – runners-up opening season – 2017/18
Nominated for Premier League Manager of the Month – December 2019 and January 2020
Best win rate (35%) and best points per game ratio (1.25) of any Watford manager in their Premier League history
Managerial highlights to-date…
My first season at Leicester City was the most enjoyable of my managerial career. What we achieved on the pitch was special, but it was more about how we evolved as a group of players and staff, and as a club. It was a wonderful, unique experience with a special group of people.
I also really enjoyed working and living abroad, and I’m very pleased for OH Leuven for the success they are enjoying at present. I learned a lot from the experience.
I loved working for The FA and for my country. I worked across all the age groups and enjoyed the tournament football experience. It was a true honour to be involved at that level. I found the coach education element very rewarding, even though I was almost learning on the job. I discovered a lot about myself as a coach during that period.
For more information on Dean Eldredge and Oporto Sports Management, please visit www.oportosports.com and follow them on Twitter @DeanEldredge and @OportoSports
Images: PA Images