On Wednesday July 9th 2014, the national football team of the Netherlands just fell short to reach the World Cup final in Brazil by losing to Argentine in a penalty shoot-out. According to many football analysts, and the remainder of Dutch society, this was without a doubt due to the exceptional leadership of Louis van Gaal, manager of the Dutch national football team.
Van Gaal is often praised because of his successes. Ex-Bayern Munich president Beckenbauer classified Van Gaal as one of the best managers in the world, being a perfect fit for Manchester United because of his experience, ambition and personality (Barlow, 2014). However, although the qualities of Van Gaal are recognized, a lot of people openly criticize his leader behavior. For example, Derksen called Van Gaal “a complete lunatic” and “a psychopath” (Voetbal International, 2013; 2014).
Van Gaal is convinced of his vision, approach and successes. Because of his authority, confidence, dominance, decisiveness and high self-esteem, Van Gaal can be classified as a narcissistic leader. However, these narcissistic personality traits might affect the positive outcomes of his transformational leadership style.
Van Gaal and Transformational Leadership
Transformational leadership “goes beyond the cost-benefit exchange of transactional leadership by motivating and inspiring followers to perform beyond expectation” (Den Hartog & Koopman, 2001, p.176). Transformational leadership includes specific leader behavior such as formulating a vision, demonstrating trust, role modelling, and expressing high performance expectations, and it consists of four dimensions: inspiration, individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, and idealized influence.
Although not scoring equally high on all four dimensions, Van Gaal certainly shows characteristics of a transformational leader. Van Gaal values much more than just winning prizes. When appointed as a trainer at any club, Van Gaal incorporates family values, paternalistic pride, and a confrontational approach, changing the football club culture and work ethic, thereby scoring high on inspiration. Van Gaal is clearly communicating values and purpose, operationalized through symbols during football training.
Van Gaal beliefs that strength is derived from these strong emotional bonds. Supported by many statements of football players he has coached over the years, Van Gaal is classified as a great mentor. Recently, football player Robben stated: “From the first day on, he made me feel important … I made a big step forward because of Van Gaal […] He is a coach that makes individual players better” (King, 2015). One can conclude that Van Gaal is scoring high on individual consideration, as he focuses on the development and mentoring of followers, proven by repeatedly making young football players perform better.
Van Gaal encourages discussion, but punishes merciless when these discussions are shared with the press. It is therefore hard to conclude the level of intellectual stimulation of Van Gaal. Even though Van Gaal claims to opt a democratic leadership style, being open for discussion, out of the box thinking, and problems solving, little evidence is available to support that claim.
Based on facts, one would not classify Van Gaal as more successful than the previous manager of Manchester United, David Moyes, as they both gathered the same amount of points out of the first 21 Premier League games. However, because Van Gaal is perceived as a much more charismatic and compelling figure than Moyes, the last turned into a soft target for sections of the media. Van Gaal scores high on idealized influence and charismatic leadership because of his self-confidence, dominance and strong conviction in the moral righteousness of his beliefs.
Van Gaal and Narcissism
Research shows that charismatic leadership and narcissism often come hand in hand, possibly negatively influencing the positive outcomes of transformational leadership. Narcissism is defined as an affective and cognitive preoccupation with oneself and an excessive and defensive assertion of status and superiority.
If Van Gaal would take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) developed by Ames, Rose and Anderson, he would probably score 16 out of 16 points. Because of his authority, confidence, dominance, decisiveness and high self-esteem, Van Gaal is classified as a narcissistic leader. Former professional football player van der Gijp even called Van Gaal the superlative of a narcissist (Voetbal International, 2010). Furthermore, Van Gaal once publicly humiliated a member of the press by stating: “Ben ik nou degene die zo slim is, of ben jij zo dom?”, referring to his own intellectual superiority versus the dumbness of the reporter (Van Gaal, 2006).
Despite the bad results at his first few weeks at Manchester United, followed by intense criticism of the English press, Van Gaal did not seem worried about his position at all. In an interview with the Daily Mail he stated: “You probably all know that I have always been a controversial person and a lot has been published about that, however I have a strong personality. I don’t care about any statement, publication or criticism”. Van Gaal is clearly convinced of his qualities, and is not anxious to reveal it. After winning the Champions League with Ajax, Van Gaal eagerly stated: “We are the best! Not just in Amsterdam, but in Rotterdam! And Eindhoven! And Europe! We are the best in the world!” (Van Gaal, 1995).
Corresponding to the literature, because of the narcissistic personality traits authority, confidence, dominance and high self-esteem, accompanied by a charismatic, inspiring vision on football, Van Gaal is rated as a favourable leader by many of his followers. However, after a while the negative effects of narcissism shine through. This is best illustrated by statements of Ferran Soriano, vice-chairman and executive of FC Barcelona during Van Gaal’s second term in 2003. He stated Van Gaal at Barcelona and later Bayern Munich “had made many enemies that there were factions within the club who wanted to kill him professionally” (Bascombe, 2014). He added: “Louis van Gaal has been a very good coach in many clubs but his style is very difficult” (Bascombe, 2014). It seems that, over time, the narcissistic personality traits of Van Gaal are too difficult to cope with, especially when positive results are lacking.
It seems that the transformational leadership style of Van Gaal is working exceptionally well with some people (young players, able to cope with criticism), but not so well with others (older players or players from a different cultural background). Van Gaal might have had even more successes if he was able to alter his emotional transformational leadership style to the situation. One could argue that followers scoring low on experience or knowledge regarding any business are more affected by transformational leadership. Besides, followers scoring high on experience or knowledge are more likely to be less affected by transformational leadership, challenging the vision of the leader. It might be that this kind of follower attaches more value to specific direction, goals or process optimizations that are designed to improve the business, while being able to discuss the content of those changes with the leader. Especially, a narcissistic leader would have difficulties with accepting these kinds of criticism and proactive influence tactics, because of the conviction of his own qualities, vision and success.
The influence of dark leadership traits and behaviours on transformational leadership remains an interesting research topic. Devastating combinations of dark personality traits and/or leadership behaviours might put serious limitations on the effectiveness of a leader, even though that leader is opting a transformational leadership style. In the future, empirical studies might consider testing the extent to which negative traits and/or behaviours influence the positive outcomes of transformational leadership.