Adding empathy to the beautiful game
Captain, Leader, Legend. The words emblazoned on a banner at Stamford Bridge. Immortalising their longest serving player, John Terry. It's widely recognised that on the pitch he is the epitome of a great leader. Passionate, die-hard, strong, heroic, a connector from top to bottom, from club to fans. Yet beyond Chelsea Terry’s image is tarnished, his own actions, along with the media, and our own thirst for scandal has ensured he epitomises our continued fascination with iconoclastic heroes. Were Terry to work in any other profession he would probably have faced much stronger repercussions, but being a footballer, his flaws are glossed over and forgotten about as the actions of an imperfect lad's lad.
Now, footballers committing misdemeanors is nothing new, and of course the media attention has increased the scrutiny of those in the limelight, but the position of Terry as a ‘leader', like many others in football, raises some interesting questions about leadership and masculinity today.
Football has produced many great ‘leaders', from Clough, Revie and Shankly to Fergie and Mourhino. It’s also thrown up some pretty questionable ones like Blatter and Platini, and even the great and good of football often have reputations that don’t particularly inspire. I’m not sure I want to go into 'the boot room’, or get the ‘hairdryer’.
However, these men have been phenomenally successful, and their leadership skills are sort after far beyond the football world; Fergie has lectured several times at the Harvard Business School. Yet, despite having contrasting football 'styles', these great manager's leadership styles were quite consistent - all very much took the role of alpha-male. For these guys, leadership was all about control, where 'the buck stops with me', they were leaders of men, outspoken, relentlessly aggressive and ruthless when faced with people they disliked.
This macho approach clearly does produce successful leaders, but it's not the only way, and there are many examples of this approach failing. Roy Keane or Phil Brown spring to mind, arguably even Mourinho's meltdown at Chelsea this season is a reflection of his inability to adapt and accept other ideas and approaches.
Fergurson, in his book ‘Leadership’ talks at length about building trust with players by showing emotional empathy with their background and identity. This is I feel the key skill that makes a great leader. He is the archetypal alpha bullying manager, but perhaps he was onto something he's not often given credit for. If he was just the hairdryer and Fergie time, perhaps he would not have been able to have success with the class of '92, Ronaldo and a host of other great players and teams.
It's this emotional understanding that is now being utilised so successfully by some managers today. But they are taking it a step further, embracing a more feminine, flexible attitude and approach, more open, honest, inclusive. Instead of creating a siege mentality between the club and the outside world (a la Mourinho / Fergie), the new great leaders in football are extending this empathy beyond the team they manage.
Arsene Wenger was perhaps the primogenitor of this ideal, as he took a more academic philosophical approach, but he also feels like he subscribes to the idea of great leadership as ultimate control and being ‘top dog’. Results seem to suggest it is the new generation of managers, or older guys who are able to adapt that are leading the way.
Jurgen Klopp epitomises the new attitude and approach, he’s incredibly relatable, funny and intelligent. He shows the passion of a fan, yet maintains the bond and respect of a family unit to turn his players a strong team.
Mauricio Pochettino is another who shows how leadership is changing. He clearly places huge importance on respecting all those involved in the game to improve the strength of his on team. Tottenham players shake hands with each other before and after each training session, just as they do with the teams they play. “Every morning we shake hands with everyone. Maybe this means this was a rule but it wasn’t a rule, just respect to each other and showing how you feel in the morning when you meet. It is just small things but it means a lot to create in the end a real team. You feel your team-mates, you feel your people. It shows you’re interested in people when you shake hands. It shows you’re interested a lot.”
Even Claudio Ranieri, once the ‘tinker man’ has changed his style to become more accepting of other ideas around him, adapting his approach to the skills and approaches that were already at the club. And it's clearly working with Leicester odds on to achieve the most romantic of football stories.
Football, has embraced women to an extent, but it remains a highly masculine culture, and can sometimes feel like it’s a step or two behind the socio-political discourse, despite simultaneously being part of the contemporary dialogue. However, whilst it feels a while before we have a truly gender equal game, it seems that those adopting a more feminine approach are revolutionising a discipline which is as much about emotional intelligence and empathy as it is about strong leadership.
Masculinity is in crisis apparently. Or is it? How do we define the modern Man? Who are the role models to aspire to? How has fatherhood changed over time? This week we’ll be focusing on all things MAN related. It’s still the case that it’s a man’s world but things are steadily shifting. Where are we headed and what next?
- Article by George Byrne and Josh Dickins