Football leadership: Strong is weak and weak is strong?

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When Steve McClaren became England’s football coach he booted David Beckham out of the team and out of the entire squad. Showing strong leadership. Or was he just showing the need to try to show strong leadership? Now he faces losing his own job

Update

This story has been updated [August 20th 2007, October 19th 2007] to a time when after many twists and turns, David Beckham had been readmitted to the England Squad by Steve McClaren, then lost his place through injury.

The updates gives me a chance to clarify the content of the original post. I’m keeping the original which even I think was pretentious and unclear, because it does have a leadership point to it. I wish I’d just kept it simple, mentioned that the ‘previous General’ was Sven Goran Eriksson, his favorite captain was that self-same David Beckham, and cut out all those post-modern flourishes.

The Original Text

I will leave the full story to those who have studied it in far more detail, for nearly a year, across front and back pages of newspapers, in multiple TV and radio shows around the World. I’m really interested in the more general points of a leader’s honeymoon period, and what constitutes ‘good’ leadership.

Trying to leave the sainted David out of the story is bit like trying to write a history of the Second World War without mentioning Winston Churchill, or that Austrian chappie. Becks is a near-unique marketing phenomenon, as well as a former England football captain. I’m going to try to airbrush him out, if only because it keeps me on a playing field where I’ve at least got a couple of coaching badges.

The Beckhamless Tale

[Look, we’ll just cut out the clever post-modern stuff about Beckham still dominating the text, despite all efforts to leave him out. OK?] This is a story about a leader who takes over after the fall of another leader judged to have failed. I will speak only of Generals, and Captains and so on.

As I was saying, there was this leader, a foreign General, who had taken over from a failed leader. At first, the Foreign General was successful in comparison to the previous leader. But his popularity might have been the Honeymoon effect. Even quite small triumphs helped secure his popularity at first. This period lasted a few years, although there were many who always opposed him because he was not a member of the tribe of which he had become the General in command on the field of football battle.

This foreign General had a favorite warrior, whose name need not concern us in this story. This favorite was his appointed military Captain. The Captain was indeed a famed warrior, (another btale of triumph after early setbacks). Captain and General helped achieve some victories, often snatching victory as defeat seemed inevitable.

As time went by, the closeness of the victories, and a few defeats, dispelled all dreams of the people that the General was a super-hero. Both General and Captain fell from favor. The honeymoon period was over. The General indicated that he would leave his post. He was aware that the powerful barons would call for his head after his next defeat.

There followed another defeat even as the General was preparing to relinquish his duties. His gallant and weary Captain also proffered his resignation, but pledged himself to serve under a new general, and under whomever would replace him.

The General’s lieutenant takes over

Those barons had appointed The General, and had also provided him with a member of their own tribe as deputy, someone who had become a faithful lieutenant. Many people thought he was too close to the General, so faithful and discreet was he.
The barons who wanted the Foreign General to go had been wondering how to replace him. They even approached another Foreign General, but the plan did not work. ‘Maybe if we selected the faithful lieutenant’ they perhaps argued to themselves ‘that will show we still have confidence in our past actions. And so it was, that the faithful lieutenant became the new chief.

The Lieutenant’s leadership dilemma

The new chief is closely associated with the last failed campaign of the departing General. To do nothing would suggest he has no new ideas. To attempt to introduce many changes would be suggest that he had been too weak to oppose things he disagreed over in the past. Yet he had to decide what to do to replace the Captain who had been so faithful to himself and the previous General.

The big symbolic gesture?

The new leader accepted the resignation of the gallant captain, but announced that he was no longer to be considered on active service. Some said that the decision pleased the Barons who had been critical of the favoritism showed the gallant captain by the former General. Others said that the captain had lost the support of his own foot soldiers, and was weakened by the adulation he received from the common people, and had become vain and lazy.

By acting to remove him, the new general was showing decisiveness, and this also helped deflect continued criticism that he was too wedded to the plans and favorites of the former General.

What would you have done?

Remember we are trying to work towards principles that might apply more widely than a single case example. I am still trying to set aside that sense of ‘I know what happened next to the former Captain, and the results of early campaigns of the newly appointed General’. What would you have done when first put in charge? What might be the considerations favoring one action over others? You have to do something, even if it is a ‘wait and see’ policy. How might we assess a leader’s competence at the time, and subsequently?

This is a thought-experiment. We can simulate various possibilities and outcomes in imagination. This in turn helps us develop micro-theories around our assumptions and beliefs. It’s how war games are played. We can try to draw on parallels from the stories we know of other leaders, in other sets of circumstances.

There are arguments in favor of a new leader making painful changes as early as possible on appointment. The case was made many years ago by Machiavelli.

I have indicated some other considerations that might have been part of the new General’s calculations. Perhaps you feel that Machiavelli’s principle (hit hard and early, then rein back) can be used to justify the actions of the new general. Maybe you have another take on the story of the newly appointed General?

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