Niv Nachlieli, head of the Sports Management specialization at Ono Academic College’s Masters in Business Administration program, discusses the winning management style of Pep Guardiola, one of the most successful sports managers working today.

Nachlieli notes that many sports managers are one-dimensional and easily defined. In general, there are those who take care of planning, down to details, and monitor the implementation of the guidelines they set. Such coaches are particularly preoccupied with tactics as a tool of control, choosing obedient players, and are extreme in the way that they exhibit rigid and cookie-cutter thinking.  They may limit the player into a narrow definition of his/her role.

Other sports managers follow their intuition, engage in less planning and connect to the players by the sweeping power of their persuasion and charisma. Such coaches “live the game”, look for creative players, feel the “hot” player and know how to motivate the squad in the locker room. On the other hand, they lack systematic analysis, structure and order.

The rarer commodity is managers and coaches who are gifted with great abilities in both fields – calculated and adventurous, rational and emotional, analytical and creative, sweeping visionaries capable of application and perseverance, engaged in philosophical aspects and able to summarize their ideas for clear and concise messages.

Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City Football Club manager is such a combination. He has the ability to be “both.” Guardiola goes into great detail and sets up game templates on which he works with the players for many hours, and also gives creative players the space to express themselves. Players who have played under him and well as sports executives say that he is “obsessive” and “intense,” and in the same breath will say of him that he is “revolutionary” and “a man of vision.”

The essence of Guardiola’s method in its various developments is based on the complementary contrast and paradox of his approach “freedom within a framework.” This means working within a clear game plan that if carefully practiced systematically, allows creative players to express their personal talents as well.

Guardiola never argued with the contention that he succeeded thanks to the talents of his players.  He was also a player once and he knows that his job is to provide the players with the conditions under which they can flourish. Thierry Henry, the renowned French football player, coach and manager used to say that Guardiola defined for the players that he was responsible for two-thirds of the field so that in the last third, the players would bring in their talent and score goals. Guardiola’s flexibility was also reflected in the developments and changes in the method of play of his teams that he said were in line with the abilities of the players at his disposal.

Coaches and managers can learn a lot from Guardiola. We live in a world of change, uncertainty and great ambiguity. Accepting this complexity requires a shift from linear thinking, to a willingness to “live with paradoxes” and with “unsolved puzzles” (Cunha, & Clegg, 2002; Lewis, 2000). Moreover, studies have shown how the willingness to accept paradoxes enables organizations to learn how to survive, thrive, and generate beneficial “innovative stress” (Smith, 2014; Smith & Tushman, 2005).

The problem is that it is not easy to live within the paradox. This requires tremendous mental resources from coaches to enable them to manage internal conflicts and constantly balance the forces in front of them. Managing these contrasting forces can exhaust managers.  They are required to process all the complexity and still come out with catchy and clear messages.  Football players need clear and concise instructions and at the end of every match there is a clear “black-and-white” test result of whether you win or lose. The trick is to look for the right balance between control and freedom of action, between creativity and sophistication and engaging in the simple and uncomplicated.

This, according to Nachlieli, is Guardiola’s secret of success.

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