Why history proves drivers, mechanics make best team bosses

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone once said that delegation is the art of accepting second best. I’ve alway loved Ecclestone’s witticisms but to a large degree, he may be spot on.  Researchers at the Cass Business School and the University of Sheffield analyzed every Formula One race staged in the last 60-years. This included almost 18,000 cars and the results are very intriguing as co-author of the study, Dr Amanda Goodall, shared.

“We can see why comparative newcomers like Red Bull, led by ex-driver Christian Horner, and Sauber, run by former mechanic Peter Sauber, are doing so well in Formula One. These teams may not have a 50-year history like Ferrari but they are led by hands-on experts with deep intuition,” Goodall said.

The results of their study showed that teams headed by former drivers or mechanics do much better than teams ran by professional managers or Engineers with degrees. While there are certainly cases where this isn’t true (Prost and Benetton) the historical data proves it out.

“Former top drivers, like Jean Todt, consistently turn into successful Formula One bosses, even when accounting for factors such as the resources available to each team,” said Goodall.

The British press is known for suggesting that Ferrari only do well when they have a Brit at the helm of the team. The era of Ross Brawn was an exceptional time and now Pat Fry has been brought in to lead the change but one might wonder if it is simply a case of the right person from the right background more than being British.

Goodall picked Formula One because the similarities in size and capabilities of the teams made it a better for comparisons. The small teams gave a clearer line of site to real influencers in that organization. Goodall did a similar study using 300 hospitals to determine if form doctors made better mangers of heath clinics. The answer was yes.

Goodall suggests that former drivers and mechanics make better leaders of Formula 1 teams due to their technical knowledge, which enables them to create better tactical and strategical plans.  The study was completed to show that technical experts are a better match for companies that are looking to succeed instead of a mangerial generalist:

“Is it important that the CEO of McKinsey was an outstanding consultant first? Should the BMW boss be an engineer? Are doctors better at running NHS hospitals? We would argue, ‘yes’,” said Dr Goodall.

“Over the last three decades, managerialism has become pervasive. Major blue chip firms have shifted away from hiring CEOs with technical expertise, towards the selection of professional managers and generalists.

“The swing of the pendulum has gone too far – leaders should first be experts in the core business of their organisations, whether they are bankers, hospital administrators, restaurateurs or technology innovators. Being a capable general manager alone is not sufficient.”

Good news for Williams F1? Toto Wolff has raced in Porsche’s. It’s not great news for Lotus F1’s Eric Boullier but he’s doing a darn fine job of it at the moment. What other teams can you think of that either support this theory or counter it with a leader who has been successful or met with defeat?



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