What Managers Can Learn From the Late, Great Brian Clough

There are some people in the world who just seem to be cut from a completely different cloth to everyone else. People who are so independent minded that swimming against the stream is as natural to them as breathing.

It would be fair to say that Brian Clough falls very squarely into this category.

For anyone who doesn't know, Brian Clough was a highly opinionated and somewhat unconventional football manager who achieved great success in the English game in the 1970s and early 1980s. Known affectionately (and disparagingly) as 'Ol' big head', Clough led two struggling clubs - Derby County and then Nottingham Forest – up through the English leagues to eventually be crowned champions of England. In addition to this, Derby County also reached the semi-finals of the European Cup under his stewardship while Nottingham Forest won the coveted trophy twice in succession with him in charge.

Aside from a few blips on his record, Clough was quite simply a man who achieved success wherever he went. Whilst many people weren't exactly enamoured with Clough's outspoken, controversial and arrogant persona, most observers begrudgingly agreed that he probably wouldn't have achieved the same degree of success if he had been a more orthodox figure.

What was it about Clough that made him so successful?

Some people believe Clough's success can be attributed entirely to the fact he was simply a 'one-off', a bona-fide maverick. However, while there is a great deal of truth to this statement, it is also clear that Clough displayed a number of characteristics which observers today can identify as being positive traits that are frequently associated with modern management success.

Management traits such as:


Although 'frankness' may be a better way to apply this term to Clough, it still falls into the overall category of honesty. Clough was honest to a fault in his appraisals of players under his charge, telling them in no uncertain terms what he thought of them (“...For missing from there, you want bloody shooting!”). Whilst his players didn't always welcome his views, they did respect them as they knew they weren't getting any BS. Being frank and honest lets people know where they stand, and footballers – like most people – appreciate that a great deal.

'Hands-on' approach

Clough was a very 'hands-on' type of manager. He enjoyed looking into player's eyes when he gave them encouragement/dragged them across the coals as he wanted to see the kind of reaction he would get. He had no airs or graces about him and encouraged his players to come to him whenever they had any concerns, problems or – if they felt brave – misgivings. This approach paid dividends as it helped to engender a rock solid 'master-apprentice'-type relationship between the manager and his players. As one of Clough's former players (now a successful manager himself) said: “One word of encouragement from Brian Clough would make me feel like I could take on the world”. Now that's effective man management.


No-one could accuse Clough of lacking self-belief. From the beginning of his managerial career in the 1960s right through to the late-80s (alcohol and ill-health led him to become a shadow of his former self in the nineties); Clough maintained an unshakeable belief that his knowledge, skills, experience and philosophy were unequivocally right. Of course, this type of confidence can often overstep the mark into arrogance (it did with Clough all too frequently); nevertheless, the fact that he achieved such consistent success throughout his career is evidence of just how powerful this particular management trait can be. People can be inspired and emboldened by being around leaders who have genuine self-belief; Clough knew this better than anyone and used it to great effect wherever he went.

Needless to say, Cloughie's management style is not one which can be adapted to suit all people, workforces or environments. However, it is fair to say that most managers could do a lot worse than take a leaf out of Brian Clough's book whenever their own style becomes a little bit vague, distant, or lacking in self-belief.

Then they too might be able to say: “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business…but I'm in the top one.”

Image courtesy of REX FEATURES