What Henry V and Sir Alex Ferguson have in common

In 1420, 5 years after the battle of Agincourt, Henry V – King of England- was recognised as regent and heir-apparent to the French throne. Ironically he was the first English monarch not to speak French, and following his death from dysentery 2 years later, failed to properly unite the kingdoms. War between the two nations was recommenced and culminated in the loss of all of England’s territory years later.

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At the end of the 2013-14 football season in England; Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of the world’s most recognised club -Manchester United- retired leaving another Scotsman, David Moyes at the helm. Just 10 months later Moyes was sacked and now Manchester United can be seen losing 2-0 to their arch rivals, in the lesser European Club competition, the Europa League.

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There’s an endless list of examples where leaders fail to achieve a succession that doesn’t result in partial or total collapse. Whether by strength of character or tactical and strategic brilliance, great leaders are able to hold everything together until they move on. Then, like vultures picking at the bones of a putrified corpse, the opposition reappear to wrest control.

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It seems to me that the only sensible way to plan a succession is to do it gradually. The ideal situation is for there to be joint leadership and for the powers to become more appropriated to the successor. I’m currently listening to ‘A Short History of England’ by Simon Jenkins‘, and what’s struck me is the turmoil that ensues after the death of each ruler. Not a succession goes by without a rebellion or some pretender staking a claim to the throne. The same is true in football where there seems to be limited provision for phasing in the new boss. Most managers get sacked over night and the replacement is in charge a week or so later.

I think modern failures in succession are a symptom of an outdated, simplified perception of leadership. One where the leader has a divine right to rule, and where the leader themselves wants to safeguard their legacy. Steve Jobs, everyone’s favourite tyrant, is a great example of this. He continued working up until his death, attempting to transfer his vision through a collection of media. The future of nations, companies or organisations often becomes a battle of wills. To the winner goes the spoils, with little or no regard for the downtrodden subjects or employees. Power, emotion and dreams of immortality get in the way of mature, long-term decision making.

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