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  • Writer's pictureKeith Jeffrey

How Values Based Leadership approaches helps you make better decisions

The Case of Josh Maja, 3rd Division Football and Sunderland Football Club

Ok, obviously football needs to be incorporated into my writing at some point. However, I’m keen that simply because sports gets mentioned it doesn’t drive away those who aren’t interested.

So, I have identified a particular decision which if values Based Leadership had been applied would have saved a football club literally millions. It would have transformed their strategic position and placed them on an upward trajectory far better to deal with the disastrous impacts of Covid on the economy and society.

We can all learn form that, amirite?

PLUS it has the added benefit of getting this hugely irritating beef off my chest, the very definition of a Win/Win situation

Sunderland AFC

For those of you unaware, SAFC are one of those clubs recognised as a “sleeping giant”. Last season attendances were around 30,000 and they have won the league title as many times as Chelsea and Man City. Sunderland is “A BIG, PROPER FOOTBALL CLUB” but unsuccessful by any measurement you care to apply.

I’ve supported Sunderland since 1973, a momentous year, but it’s been downhill ever since, culminating in the ignominious position of finishing last season in the third tier outside of the play off positions. The worst league position in our 141 year history. A total disaster.

That rolling mess of ineptitude is brilliantly documented in the Netflix documentary “Sunderland Till I Die”.

New ownership took over in 2018 led by businessmen Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven. Their ambition was to take the club straight up at the first attempt and resell Sunderland as a Championship club at a hopefully significant profit, maybe even staying involved as the club progressed back to the Premiership.

Donald and Methven felt they had the capability to turn a massive loss-making operation round to make it a successful well-run business again.

This is the root of the problem. Football clubs are not businesses. Given the number of highly successful businesspeople who have failed to make their pet football club successful I’m surprised this perception persists.

“Fastest way to make a small fortune out of football? Start with a large fortune.”

Football clubs are not businesses, they are institutions. Of course, they should be run in a business-like manner, but success only comes if you have the right values in place and are committed to the long term. The Donald/Methven partnership have neither which is why SAFC can never be successful under their ownership.

Because where Sunderland is now is down to one decision and one decision only, that is the selling a player called Josh Maja in January 2019.

One crucial decision which had catastrophic impacts. Even as I write this I still can’t believe they allowed it to happen.

Key Learning Point: What is Values based leadership?

Harry Kraemer is a great place to start. He identified 4 principles for establishing a leadership approach based on values:

· Self-reflection: Know who you are and what you stand for

· Balance: Understand the full and rounded picture of the situation you are in

· True self-confidence: Acceptance of who you are, strengths and weaknesses

· Genuine humility: You are but one voice so respect what others have to say

Taking these principles as a starting point you can then begin build up a value Framework which defines not just WHAT is done but as importantly HOW and WHY. Kraemer illustrates many examples of the benefits to business but for SAFC, this one decision to sell Josh Maja was the sole reason SAFC were not promoted in 2018/19 season.

What sort of Values should a club like Sunderland have?

To determine your own values framework should be a very comprehensive engagement programme with key stakeholders, clients and staff but IMHO they should look like this:

- Exciting football delivered by hardworking players

- An Institution which values its “own” giving players developed within the club clear routes to fulfilling their potential

- An institution seeking to represent the working-class history of the City

- Responsibly managed for long term sustainability

Fag packet I know and in a proper process I would concentrate these down into very short statements that can be internalised, but I think most SAFC fans would subscribe to these statements well.

Who is Josh Maja?

Born in 1998 Josh Maja signed for Sunderland in 2016 and by 2018 had established himself as the club’s top striker. Indeed by Jan 2019 he was the top scorer in the division. His goals had taken the club into promotion contention, scoring goals out of nothing and we fans hadn’t been this excited in years. Here was a young player, we had developed through our Academy, starting to look like the real deal.

However, his contract was due to expire at the end of the 18/19 season and for reasons best known to himself and his agent he turned down a much improved offer from Sunderland. So, this left club owner Stewart Donald with a dilemma, sell him now and get a fee or hold on to the end of the season and let him go for free.

What would you do?

Remember this is the club’s top scorer, in any division goals are premium, crucial to success. For Donald, letting those goals walk out of the door is the biggest decision he has yet to make. Maja’s goals are keeping SAFC on track for promotion yet how could the club let its prize asset leave for nothing?

Donald’s decision? He sold Maja for £1.5m to Bordeaux.


The club is now short of attacking options. The guaranteed goals he had just lost need to be found immediately. Donald then spent at least £3m signing a proven striker at that level Will Grigg in an agonising transfer day dilemma documented on Netflix he signs Will Grigg from Wigan for a deal worth at least £3m.

Grigg was not a success. Josh Maja scored 15 goals in first half of the season and Grigg only 4 in the second half.

SAFC lost momentum, dropped out of automatic promotion places and went on to lose yet again at Wembley to Charlton in agonising circumstances. The financial impacts are huge and continue into the following season where SAFC again fail to achieve promotion.

It’s painful and unpleasant (unless you’re a mag).

Let’s be clear, footballing decisions often go wrong but this one decision shaped the entire season so it’s useful to follow through how it was made.


You are probably faced with similar dilemmas all the time. Having a values framework in place should help you when these invidious situations arise. Money is always important but making it THE most important factor creates fault lines with stakeholders and customers which cannot be papered over. Faith and Trust can be lost quickly but by incorporating values into your decision making you will also make better financial decisions.

So if Donald had a Values Framework in place, would Maja have been sold?

My guess is no. Let me explain.

Donald has clearly defined SAFC as a business and as he is a businessman he knows how to make business decisions (Hammer/nail combo in full effect). Seen through that prism allowing a prized asset to walk away is anathema. Best take what you can, while you can and move on.

Maja was sold for £1.5m, Grigg purchased for £3m+ leading to a 75% decrease in goals scored. Add on to this failure to get promotion and losses increase like a rocket.

A VERY BAD DECISION (even on its own terms).

What if Donald had applied the values I outlined above?

If I want attractive exciting football delivered by a hardworking footballer then Maja delivers.

If I want to demonstrate that we are committed to our “own” and show clear progression routes to the first team from the Academy then we should retain him.

If I want to demonstrate a connection to the City, here is a talented young lad, born in London but who had committed to Sunderland by moving here and working hard.

Finally, what do I get if I sell him? £1.5m? Not much and then I have to spend money to replace him. No financial sense either.

In my values-based world, we keep Maja for the rest of the season, he scores another 12 goals and we are promoted automatically. Guess work obviously but there is no reason to suggest he would have performed any worse than Will Grigg.

The Point of this

This has bugged me since he was transferred so I’ve finally got this off my chest. Job done.

More importantly I hope it demonstrates that in a very stark and (ahem) black and white way that allowing values to inform your decisions makes better strategic and financial sense.

Having values is not a luxury, it is vital for long term success.

But you have to be explicit about them and live by them especially when times are hard.

I work with leaders in social, creative and cultural sectors so these trade-offs are there all the time.

We almost always deal in intangibles, which are difficult to measure (but not impossible) yet are the secret to our success. Get them wrong and the money goes wrong as well. Get the values right and you have a far better chance of being successful in the long run.

So, what are your values and how are making them real through the decisions you make?

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