Doomed to fail? A study of how junior managers at a major sport event cope with leadership issues | A Summary

Annika Bodemar1, Anna-Maria Strittmatter1 & Josef Fahlén1,2
1 Dept. of Sport and Social Science, Norwegian School of Sport Sciences;
2 Department of Education, Umea University

In this article, the authors studied how young middle managers cope with uncertainty and solve problems, thus possibly contributing to an external impression of a successful event. The vision of the event put under scrutiny, the 2012 Oslo World Snowboarding Championships (WSC), was ‘to create the best snowboarding event to date and demonstrate the potential of independent snowboarding to the world’. This implies a demonstration of capability to create a concept that could strengthen the position of independent snowboard organizations (i.e., organizations outside the International Olympic Committee and the International Ski Federation). The media and external stakeholders praised the event and declared the event as a success. However, behind this external view of success, the organizing committee experienced several organizational challenges.

Empirically, the case-study is based on semi-structured interviews (n=19) representing different hierarchal levels in the organizing committee (OC), documents, and participant observations. The article mainly addresses the perspectives of young middle managers (aged between 24 and 29) recruited from the music event industry and holding skills assumedly transferable to a sport event context.

Theoretically, the article builds on research that has identified critical issues from both the OC’s and the other stakeholders’ perspectives leading to the downfall of the target event. According to identified critical issues, the WSC should have been doomed to fail based on its lack of vision, mission, and goals; insufficient due diligence; problems concerning financial commitments; issues with politics and power; poor HRM; and communication failures. However, we aimed at exploring which mechanisms caused the externally perceived success of the event.

Based on a multi-level analysis, the results show how different perceptions of problems and responses caused divergence and loss of authority for the top management (CEO and the event manager). The junior managers experienced problems as wicked, causing chaos and uncertainty that according to literature calls for leadership. However, when the middle managers called for leadership the top management’s response was command by applying an authoritarian behaviour since it acknowledged that some problems were critical: “When it comes to managing our own organization, we were probably in an oversized limbo” (CEO) the cause of what he describes as “crises” related to management challenges concerning “economy, politics and media”.

Hence, the middle managers were partly left to themselves as the top-management was busy solving crises. Consequently, the middle managers had to get involve in other organizational processes, such as horizontal modes of organizing: group work (within the OC), networking (outside the OC). In particular, the analyses show how loyalty to their colleagues was more crucial to their actions than their dedication to the sport event. As expressed by one middle manager:

The moral we tried to live by but also convey to our subordinates was ‘Yes, this goes as it goes, but our part is going to be good.’ […] We have a mutual obligation and responsibility for others, […] so it’s extreme loyalty. I suppose it is in the other departments as well […] because we are colleagues at other places too, it was really like ‘all or none’.

Although the top managers were praised for their entrepreneurial skills and snowboard expertise, the interviewees still relied more on each other than on the hierarchical modes of organizing, hence not asking their leaders for help. In retrospect, the CEO has been self-critical about the leadership exercised, but still points to the suitability and need for authoritarian decision making by leaders in crisis conditions.

Overall, the article shows how the work of an organizing committee can be perceived as a success externally while simultaneously struggling heavily internally, thereby raising questions about what constitutes success in the first place. On that note, the authors also address issues relevant to leadership research in sport event management more broadly. First, as the results point to the importance of recognizing different perceptions of problems in different hierarchical organizational layers, they show how leadership research needs multi-level approaches. Arguably, had this study employed a more traditional design (taking the top managers’ perspective), findings would possibly have pin-pointed their leadership skills and coping ability. Second, as the findings emphasize the importance of informal organizational structures and networks (both within and outside the OC), they point to the need for attention to informal organizations when trying to pinpoint factors that contribute to the success or failure of an event—not just attention to the formal structures displayed in official documentation that researchers typically focus on when attempting to understand the mechanisms behind success or failure.

Copyright © Annika Bodemar, Anna-Maria Strittmatter & Josef Fahlén 2020

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