Mayvin_Football Leadership development failure Conflict resolution

Leadership, football and failure: it’s only a game…

Mayvin Director explores leadership and failure, through the experience of the beautiful game.

I like football. I know it isn’t cool, but then again neither is rugby any more, so that’s OK. I play five-a-side football regularly (a sad sight) and most weekends during the Season, I watch a lot of football from the sofa. Occasionally I go to a game, perhaps two or three a season. It is usually a disappointment. I shiver and yawn a lot. My mind drifts and I contemplate the burnt hole in my pocket and wonder how the 50,000 other people there can afford it. Rarely, I see some good football. But it doesn’t really matter: it is only a game, after all.

I watch football out of habit, partly because I love the game, and partly because it is a great antidote to my other, serious, cerebral, sensitive metrosexual life as an OD and Leadership Consultant. It is the pettiness of it; the lack of sensitivity that I enjoy, the banality and the banter; the sardonic cheering that accompanies, for example, the referee tripping himself over.

But recently a couple of events have forced me to face my personality split. Firstly, my five-a-side game is falling apart, after over 10 years. Two younger guys have started to pitch up, and rightly, they are running rings around us oldies. But that isn’t the problem. It is their attitude. They are unpleasant, sour, and complain all the time that they are being fouled. Of course they are, because they are so much more nimble than the rest of us.  But this situation is holding us all to ransom because no one is stepping in sort it out properly. This is because it would be ‘too heavy’. Lads don’t do conflict resolution. So every week we individually moan and grumble that this is spoiling our weekly oasis of bloke-ishness, but no-one will step forward and sort it out. We’re too busy being blokes to be proper grown-ups.

The other event is the death of Wales manager Gary Speed. Clearly, something was up with Speed, the ever-so-normal, ordinary jobbing football bloke. Obviously, something had been up for years, while we all turned a blind eye on the existential issues of life and pretended to get very upset about a small ball and a large net. I mean, how much does it really matter, despite what Bill Shankly* was once supposed to have said? Yet something clearly mattered to Gary and I doubt it was anything he could talk about on Match of the Day with Lawro or Lineker. I imagine he simply had no one to turn to, as he stood in front of tens of thousands at the Millennium Stadium. That is simply tragic. Not a ‘He-just-missed-an-open-goal!’ tragic. This is a quiet, deep, disturbing, adult kind of tragic.

Yet, bringing the two halves of my life together, I’d have listened. Possibly Lineker and Lawro would have too. (Actually, I doubt whether Lawro would have done). It strikes me that both these events come down to a failure of leadership. Everyone is talking about leadership failure at present: in Banks, The Press, in Europe, in the Middle East. But I am not talking about the ‘It’s time we found a Hero to step in and sort this out!’ type of leadership failure, on which pundits like Max Hastings and others have pontificated at length of late. The era of the Big Hero leader must be over. Surely the 20th century has taught us this, and my guess is that somewhere in the tragedy of Gary Speed and those who share his secret despair, this Hero-myth still lurks malignantly.

Real leadership failure is a momentary thing, in the daily weave of things, with the still, small voice of us all. Its opportunity is everywhere.  It is in all of us who run up credit card bills and then blame ‘the banks’ for losing our money (which we had borrowed anyway). It is those of us who ‘tut tut’ at the coverage of the Levinson Enquiry, about the scurrilous behaviour of the Press and then continue to buy, read and revel in those very Red Tops that have sponsored it. It is probably (although we may never know) in the community around poor Gary, who took at face value that he was ‘fine’. (And perhaps more challengingly, it was in Gary himself, for not facing his vulnerability and seeking help more readily). It is in my five-a-side mob, and in me, for not stepping up and taking our fun seriously enough to sort it out.

Leadership, and its failure, like God, the architect Le Corbusier apparently once said, is in the small things.

*“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.” Bill Shankly, quoted on

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