Leadership Lessons From The ‘Special One’

Nov 04, 2010 1 Min Read
José Mourinho

Photo credit: Ronnie Macdonald | Flickr

Ferguson is right. Money does not guarantee success. I showed that last season when my Porto team beat Manchester United. It’s all about leadership.– Jose Mourinho

During the recent World Cup, I studied the work of leadership guru cum hostage negotiator George Kohlrieser on high performance teams.

As the new football season kicked off, I started to think about high performance sports teams. And immediately, one name comes to mind –José Mário dos Santos Félix Mourinho.

Jose Mourinho has built three high performance teams in the past few years. The moment he takes over the team, they quickly gel, start to perform and win trophies. How does Mourinho do it?

When Mourinho was asked what the secret to his success was, he humbly responded: “I pray a lot. I believe in God. I try to be a good man so He can have a bit of time to give me a hand when I need it.”

Mourinho may pray a lot but so do other coaches. Mourinho is probably the only coach who has a PhD, earning it from Lisbon’s Technical University.

But praying or having a PhD does not explain how he seamlessly builds high performance teams?

Let’s explore this paradoxical man. Mourinho, with his trademark Armani suit, is called crazy by some and genius by others. Despot and kind. Godly and arrogant. Loved and hated.

Yet, regardless of which team one supports, everyone, including women, has high respect for “The Special One”.

In fact, when Mourinho left his old club Chelsea, his archrivals Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger moaned his departure.

Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was sad.

In a recent AOS survey, Mourinho topped a poll of celebrities that most office workers would want as their boss.

He won the poll convincingly beating Richard Branson, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Oliver and others.

For corporate employees, Mourinho is the “Chosen One”, someone they secretly wish would transform their workplace.

So how does Mourinho keep creating these high performance teams?

According to Kohlrieser in his book Hostage at the Table, there are eight key pillars to high performance leadership:

1) Leading from the mind’s eye – the power of focus;

2) Cycle of bonding – motivation, inspiration, resilience;

3) Leader as secure base – creating trust to drive change;

4) Conflict resolution – resolving differences;

5) Power of dialogue – building bridges with common understandings;

6) High impact negotiation – influencing and persuading;

7) Leveraging strengths – team self-awareness; and

8) Managing emotions – creating high energy.

Leading from the mind’s eye

Mourinho wanted to be a professional football player like his father Felix. But he was so untalented that it ended in embarrassing failure when he was not even allowed on the field.

Mourinho quit football and went to business school. But after just a day, he quit and enrolled in a sports science course, deciding to become the world’s greatest coach instead. And since that day he has kept his mind’s eye focused on being the best coach in the world.

At Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and now Real Madrid, Mourinho’s mind’s eye keeps him focused on winning. Even in defeat, he refuses to take the role of loser.

Every team he has managed quickly bounces back from losses because their leader has his mind’s eye fixated on nothing but success.

“It’s no fluke that after a defeat, Inter gets straight back on its feet. That’s all thanks to Mourinho,” claims Diego Milito, an Inter Milan star. In fact, winning is so engraved as Mourinho expresses:

I love players who love to win. They not only win in 90 minutes, but every day, every training session, in every moment of their lives.

The entire team’s mind’s eye is focused on winning.

This might interest you: Raise Your Game: Leading With The Mind’s Eye

Cycle of bonding

Mourinho creates bonds with every single player in his team and personally knows each of them. Mourinho is known for his great “rapport” with his players.

He knows each player intimately and knows which button to press for each player. Some say Mourinho is avuncular and caring, while others say he is an intimidating tyrant.

Neither is true. He simply worked out how to use differing training methods for each player. “His training sessions are spectacular,” says Ronaldo.“They have great intensity but we don’t feel tired because we are extremely motivated.”

Every team Mourinho coaches bonds like a family. Mourinho adds:

You must create a positive atmosphere and make everyone feel part of the group. In this club, if you go to the barrier, the man at the door feels part of the group and success. The people who work in the kitchen feel part of this family. And I’m one of them.

Leaders as secure base

Research shows that teams perform best when their leader is a secure base. Mourinho was a coach, a friend and a secure base to all his players wherever he went. Even with personal issues, he was highly visible and accessible to all players.

The day Mourinho bid farewell to his Chelsea players, there was tears everywhere. He knew them all including their wives and kids and mentioned each one during his three hour farewell.

Inter’s Milito says:

There is no coach like him when it comes to sticking his neck out and defending everyone, that way reducing the tension within the team when things aren’t going well.

Mourinho is the players’ secure base. Frank Lampard attests of Mourinho:

I love him as a man and as a manager.

Conflict resolution

All high performance teams are faced with conflict. According to Kohlrieser, high performance teams “put the fish on the table”. By putting the “smelly fish”, or conflict on the table, there is opportunity for everyone to see these issues and work to their resolution.

Mourinho does similarly by constantly delivering feedback and performance assessments to each player. Some players may not like having the “fish on the table”. Joe Cole once received some stinging feedback but took it under his chin and started performing.

The power of dialogue and language

When Mourinho went to Italy, he said: “I studied Italian five hours a day for many months to ensure I could communicate with the players, media and fans.”

It is said that Mourinho speaks 17 languages. He uses the power of dialogue and language to build common understanding of the clear goals he has set for his team.

A self-confessed fan of Ferguson, Mourinho not only became Ferguson’s close friend but great rival. Their bond and dialogue enabled two strong-willed men to build a friendship in spite of their rivalry. Mourinho uses dialogue and language to ensure every single player on his team has similar friendships with him and a clear understanding of the end goal.

High impact negotiation

In March 2007, Chelsea was being outclassed in the first half of a Champion League game losing 1-0. A few minutes before half-time, Mourinho angrily storms out.

Chelsea came out of the dressing room a completely new team, winning the game. This happened numerous times throughout Mourinho’s career. Why does his half-time talk always work? He does not yell, he does not scream but he negotiates and influences his players to change.

“I asked the players to enjoy the situation,” Mourinho said of one of his half-time talks. “We had 45 minutes to change things, and I asked them ‘are you scared of it or are you going to enjoy it?’ Psychologically, I just made the players think a little bit.”

According to sports psychologist Andy Barton: “Mourinho will always look to turn a negative into a positive. If a team is 3-0 down at half time and the manager starts screaming about all the mistakes made, it doesn’t help. Instead he’ll focus on things they are doing right and tell them how they can turn the game around.”

Mourinho is very specific about what is required to win and influences his players to build a mental image of what is needed.

He spends significant amount of time preparing each player differently for games. He influences and persuades big stars to train and conform to his team patterns.

He treats them all as equals.

Leveraging strengths

Mourinho is a man who knows his strengths and limitations.

He once said:

If Roman Abramovich helped me out in training we would be bottom of the league and if I had to work in his world of big business, we would be bankrupt!

Mourinho understood what he was good at and what each member of his team was capable off. He worked within the strengths of his team and gets the best of each individual. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, talks about how great leaders build great teams by “getting the right people on the bus.”

Mourinho has trusted lieutenants that he brings into every team he manages. One of them is fitness coach Rui Faria, who has been with him at every club.

When Faria was asked what Mourinho’s secret was, he responded:

Every other top coach says they work hard and they prepare better than anyone else, but they can’t make what Mourinho does. Everything he does is better. He works harder than anyone else. He knows everything about every player and every game.

Mourinho knows every single player’s strengths and weaknesses. He knows how to leverage their strengths fully as a team and minimise their weaknesses. And every single player knows each other’s strengths and this team self-awareness is the difference between Mourinho and other top coaches.

Mourinho himself displays great personal self-awareness when he quit football to focus on coaching. This “quitting” is termed the hedgehog principle by Collins.

It is simply to be very clear about what drives you and what you can be genuinely great at, and then relentlessly focus on that.

How many of us persist with things we know deep down, are not going to lead us to success? How many organisations persist on doing things the same way?

Insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results. Once, Mourinho was termed insane for making three substitutions in the first half of a game he was losing. Mourinho was just addressing the brutal reality of a situation.

Mourinho learnt quickly that there is no relationship whatsoever between functional expertise and managerial ability.

Managing emotions

“Players don’t win you trophies, teams win trophies, squads win trophies,” rants Mourinho daily. But Mourinho does much more than build teams. He builds leaders in each team he manages. At Chelsea, more than half of his first team became captains of their national team.

To ensure you build high performance teams, you need to grow leaders. Leadership is needed in every part of your team. You cannot be a giant surrounded by midgets.

When Mourinho arrived at Chelsea there were no stars–he fashioned them. John Terry and Frank Lampard were good players he turned into world class.

He says:

You must work hard and work well. Many people work hard, but not well. You must create good leadership with the players, which is an accepted leadership, not leadership by power or status.

If we look at back at our careers, most will admit that the period we developed the most was when a manager pushed us to our limit.

Mourinho, more than anyone else, believes in pushing a person to their limits, enabling his team to constantly move out of their comfort zone and into a courage zone.

Final thoughts

That is the lesson of Mourinho. We need special ones. We need leaders like Mourinho who have their mind’s eye focused. “The thing about Mourinho is that you don’t know what he’s going to do next but whatever it is, it will be because he thinks it is beneficial to the team,” says Barton.

Mourinho built numerous high performance teams being an authentic leader through the power of bonding. He worked hard and had thorough forensic preparation for each match but his unique relationship with his players, and his relentless focus made the difference. What are you doing to build high performance teams?


Roshan Thiran is passionate about creating a few José Mourinhos in Malaysia. Roshan is the CEO of Leaderonomics – a social enterprise working to transform lives through leadership development and nurturing potential. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook for more insights into business, personal development, and leadership. 

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com


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