End of Season

Your might forgive the good people of Huddersfield and Reading for not worrying too much about the up-coming election. As I write supporters of both teams, to say nothing of the players and managers, are preparing themselves for the big final. The prize, a season in the Premiership! An even bigger prize is being debated in the general election and if you add all this together you get a sense of some very different views about leadership. I wonder if sport might have a few things to say about leadership to the politicians?

A new book by Sam Walker, The Captain Class: the Hidden Force Behind the World’s Greatest Teams suggests it has. Walker offers an interesting analysis of some of history’s greatest sports team, from the Hungarian football teams of the 1950s to the recent rugby All Blacks. The rise and fall of these teams correlates almost exactly with the appearance and departure of the captain. Of course, there may be many other variables at play, but this does suggest as prima facia case for how influential leadership can be. Across these examples Walker argues that we see nothing of the stereotypical ‘great man’ leader, no flashy charisma, and often they are not the most talented member of the team.

For me one thing stands out with these leaders: they avoided lime-light. Their focus is not themselves.

Richie McCaw, the great All Black flanker was offered a knighthood in 2011 and turned it down. Carla Overbeck, the skipper of the great US Women’s football team of the 90s, did not join in the victory parade but went straight home. When asked what she was doing while her team mates were being feted, she replied ‘three loads of laundry’. Tim Duncan, captain of the NBA Antonio Spurs team, accepted a salary less than his market value. Carles Puyol, skipper of Barcelona FC, unrelentingly kept his team focused.  Those of us from Yorkshire might complain that Walker did not include the great cricket team of the 1960s and the inimitable Brian Close; but that’s for another time.

The conclusion of David Walsh (Sunday Times, May 21, 2017) is that Walker’s study points to servant leadership. I am not totally convinced about this, partly because I am always sceptical of leadership theories which try to sum up everything (cf. Robinson and Smith 2014), and partly because there seem to be several different variations on servant leadership theory.

Often it is characterised as ‘serving the followers’. The way this is expressed, of course, aims to create dissonance with the traditional view of leadership. However, ‘serving followers’ is a problematic idea because it puts followers at the centre of the leadership. This is far from the case in the examples that Walker notes. McCaw, as leader points to something greater than ‘followers’, the team, the sport and New Zealand itself. His focus is on the value (not values) of the team and of rugby, and he helped the rest of the team to focus on that. Overbeck’s leadership takes us beyond that. ‘Get a life’, seems to be her message, success is no everything. Her identity as sportsperson and leader was much more than a winning captain of a successful team. This is the antidote to Bill Shankley’s,

‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’

Leadership is about getting life in perspective, not just focusing on followers. And Puyol takes that a notch further when we read of him breaking up a celebration by two Barcelona players. He though that it was disrespectful to the opposition and might just fire them up. Here the leader is both focused on moral values, in this case respect, the moral framework of the sport (see Gardiner, Parry and Robinson 2017) as well as success.

Duncan goes even further. As leader he focuses not so much on followers and more on relationships in the team and club. In effect he focuses on justice, in other words fairness; right relationships and how this is expressed in terms of reward.

How does politics tie in with all of this? Central to the debate thus far has been the cry ‘which party will give us the strong leadership that is required for Brexit’. But it looks like we have quickly got over the idea that strong leadership is the main issue, and that authentic leadership is about staying focused on the meaning and practice of what really matters.

Hence, the issues emerging in the Labour manifesto have halved the Tory poll lead. Let me be clear I am not signalling support for any side. However, the more our debate focuses on justice, respect, and a balanced view, i.e. non-polarized, of Brexit, and actually works that through in detail the more responsible leadership will be practised in the campaign. Contrast that with leadership on both sides of the referendum which showed a lack of respect for the opposition, and sought to polarize and mislead. They were neither true to the issues or to the electorate.

Prof. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

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