Bernie Ecclestone defined Formula One. Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus, considers what his departure could mean for F1 leadership.
Bernie Ecclestone ruled Formula One for four decades. In many ways, he defined the sport. He was a classic ‘hero’ leader – he set the tone, took the decisions, and made the deals. Heroes like this can be commercially successful. However, they often stifle the people around them and create a culture of dependency. When they depart, they leave a void.
It’s fair to say that Ecclestone was a controversial leader. He is widely credited with transforming F1 into a multibillion-dollar business. He has also been widely criticised for his autocratic style. Former world champion Sir Jackie Stewart believed Ecclestone was “too powerful” and said he had, “such power and influence that he could suffocate almost any performer who would dare to suggest that there must be change.” He also complained that there was no succession plan. This is a common issue in organisations ruled by a hero leader.
In 2013, the International Journal of Motorsport Management published an analysis of Bernie Ecclestone ’s roles as CEO of Formula One. The analysis found that, “Ecclestone fulfills a diversity of tasks that are typically performed by a number of key individuals within a management team,” and suggested that a professional management team may be required to succeed him.
It appears that new F1 owners Liberty Media do indeed intend to change the way the sport is run. Alongside new CEO Chase Carey, there are high-profile appointments in other roles, including former Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn as managing director of motorsports. Brawn commented: “We have an almost unprecedented opportunity to work together with the teams and promoters for a better F1 for them and, most importantly, for the fans.” Mention of the fans is critical. There has been a drop from 600 million to 400 million in global TV viewing figures since 2008. Industry observers attribute this to Ecclestone’s exclusive broadcasting deals. Many argue that his unwavering pursuit of the deal and the bottom line led to a lack of focus on long-term, sustainable success.
There is no doubt that F1 needs to reconnect with its core audience and to engage the audience of tomorrow. For all its glitz and glamour, it would benefit from becoming increasingly accessible. How can its new leaders achieve this? I’d suggest that customers, not cash, need to be much more central to the entire decision-making process. Leaders need to work with each other, and also with the sport’s multiple stakeholders. It’s a fast-moving world, so agility and speed of decision-making are important – but those decisions could be better made through greater customer insight and collaboration. The result would be an F1 that can evolve from the Ecclestone era into a more connected, customer-driven sport suited to the 21st century.
Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus and author of the acclaimed business book, Connected Leadership: How to build a more agile, customer-driven business. If you’d like to know more about customer-centred, connected leadership, please get in touch. We’d love to talk to you.