Bobby Robson: Football’s Servant Leader

Bobby Robson

Bobby Robson loved football and served it well. He will also be remembered for an outstanding life lived with respect and warmth to everyone he met

Bobby Robson’s death came as no great surprise to countless friends and admirers around the World. He had witnessed a charity football match at the home of his beloved Newcastle United, one week ago [July 26th 2009].

A crowd of 33,000 turned out to honour former England and Newcastle manager Sir Bobby Robson at St James’ Park on Sunday. An England XI including several members of Robson’s 1990 World Cup squad took on a team of their German counterparts in a game to raise money for the 76-year-old’s own cancer charity.
Robson, in a wheelchair as he battles cancer for a fifth time, was introduced to both teams and presented with a lifetime achievement award by UEFA [Union des associations européennes de football] before kick-off. The match, which began after a stirring rendition of Italia 90 anthem Nessun Dorma, was intended as a replay of the Turin [World Cup] semi-final famously won on penalties by West Germany.

The numerous tributes on his death covered his sporting achievements which themselves would have warranted some international recognition. This outpouring of emotion was something else. The extra ingredient was for a life lived under intense media scrutiny. Graham Taylor, his successor as England’s Football Manager was deeply wounded by its intrusiveness and cruelty. Typically, Bobby Robson rode out press attention and associated criticism apparently unmoved. It must be said that Robson was less-savagely treated than was Taylor, and subsequent managers. Why might that have been the case?

Robson as Servant Manager

One of the less-explored ideas in business textbooks is that of the Servant Leader. The term is associated with work of Robert Greanleaf

The concept seems to be as admirable in theory as it is hard to live out in practice.

From time to time I have wondered about those nominated as examples such as Al Gore and Bill Gates. I remain rather unconvinced. For much of the time I followed the career of Bill Gates, he seemed to be somewhat unconcerned with deep ethical considerations as he pursued to goal of building Microsoft into a global empire.

Al Gore, a politician of undoubted green credentials had not left me with strong primary evidence of something special in his earlier career.

One of the difficulties is that the theory has a universalistic feel to it. The virtuous life is more likely to be espoused in some contexts than others. At one extreme, we might expect the values of servant leadership to match rather well in religious and educational contexts. Not so well in fiercely sporting contexts. And hardly at all well in business. Politics is a rather interesting case, with politicians careful to present themselves as espousing service to the people, while too often demonstrating practices of blatant self-serving careerism.

Robson: The something special

The something special about Bobby Robson seems to me to come from a coherent set of behaviours which reflected deeply held values. His life story fits well with religious and ethical principles. But Bobby hardly involved morality or higher purpose in his actions. Rather he captured his enthusiasm for a life in football, but also in keeping with respect for the needs of people with whom he came into contact. And particularly with the needs of young footballers on his teams.

The Bobby Robson Foundation

Robson’s fight against cancer has become well-known. His recently-formed charity follows the example set by another great football figure, Bobby Moore, who also died of the disease.

The charities fund much-needed research. I happen to support them, and wish them well. But the academic in me resists the conclusion that founding a charity adds to our understanding of Bobby Robson.

Somehow it seems as if the Bobby Robson Foundation confirms much that is being written about the man. On the other hand, charities can be founded as some kind of conscience bequest after a life that was far from enacting principles of servant leadership.

I can do no better that quote the man himself from an admirable BBC Obituary

In his 2005 autobiography Farewell but not Goodbye, Robson said of the experience [of receiving a civic honour] “A number of [Newcastle City] councillors wrote to me to say they had never seen so much emotion in a ceremony of that kind. Perhaps it was because I had talked about my father, and how he went down the pit white and came up black, in an area where the two colours symbolise a city’s love of football, a love that burns within me and will never fade.” It is a fitting way to sum up Robson’s obsession with the ‘beautiful game’.


The memorial service in Durham Cathedral [September 21st 2009] was simple and magnificent.

2 Responses to Bobby Robson: Football’s Servant Leader

  1. soccer says:

    great player during his career as a footballer..

  2. Football Online Free…

    Bobby Robson: Football’s Servant Leader « Leaders We Deserve…

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