Kicking ideas around.
As the World Cup got underway, an interesting and unlikely Twitter spat broke out between the ex-England striker Alan Shearer and the historian Simon Schama. Schama took exception to critical comments Shearer had made about the English players in their match against Tunisia and pointed out how nervous they would have been in their first game of the most important football tournament. Shearer pulled the ‘been there, done that; what do you know?’ card to try to shut him down.
That football transcends the game has long been known: from the Algerian philosopher, novelist (and one-time national goal-keeper) Albert Camus’ ‘all that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football’ to the Scottish ironist and metaphysician Bill Shankly (also a great Liverpool manager): ‘people say football is a matter of life and death. I disagree. It is more important than that’. What then can we learn from football and the penumbra of opinions and emotions that surrounds it, particularly at the World Cup?
Firstly, as the Shearer-Schama exchange illustrates, the debate in sociology between structure and agency plays out here. (Put simply this revolves around whether we have real free will to act or whether we are often unconsciously constrained in our behaviour and thinking by frameworks such as history, law, custom and practice, moral codes etc.) Broadly speaking, Schama is taking a structuralist position: the frame or context has to be understood as it shapes the agency of the player. Shearer can’t understand this: to him, the player ‘should’ be doing certain things, and it is his or the manager’s fault that he is not. (In organisations, too, what ‘should’ be done has to negotiate with culture: eg a very profitable company offers degrees of freedom denied to one where profit margins are tight.)
Staying with the structuralist perspective: another fascinating aspect of the Cup is the way certain football cultures develop over time, shaped by national history and mores. The debate about whether certain teams ‘cheat’ or whether cheating only exists if it is observed and punished by the referee might be seen as situated in notions about the nature and status of authority, whether authority is worthy of respect, whether it should be supported or subverted. Other arguments might look into the genealogy of the rules, whether they are fair or not, and so on. One might also ask whether a nation that has a history of protest and rebellion against dictatorships and foreign domination will have the same attitudes to rules and regulation as a nation that has had a relatively unruffled history and broadly benign government. These issues, of course, inform organisations, too: the history and culture of a company will frame thought and behaviour and limit or allow individual freedom of manoeuvre.
Secondly, the potential of a player is framed most obviously by their skills, intelligence, strength, stamina, body type and height, but also by their personalities, emotional resilience and the environment from which they emerge. (Some tend to be more creative, others more functional, some tactical and others more individualistic.)
Of equal importance is the role of the coach and his/her capacity to allow the real potential of the player to emerge. In this respect, Shearer and his co-pundits set themselves up as arbiters, as critical figures who relay the ‘shoulds, oughts, and musts’ that would from a manager inhibit the free flow of an activity by increasing anxiety. (This is at its most intense in the taking of a penalty where – studies suggest – the critical voice has to be stilled for the taker to perform at their best.) This critical voice undermines confidence in all of us at critical moments and we have to find ways of stilling it. Here it is often the manager who understands these difficulties from personal experience, rather than the naturally brilliant practitioner, who leads best: great players often make bad coaches, just as brilliant designers, accountants, salespeople often prove to be ineffective at motivating or leading others. And a good executive coach has to be able to understand the internal and external blocks to high performance.
When it comes to the brilliant player other rules apply. We are told that some of the stars of this World Cup are narcissistic, histrionic, selfish, and overly dominant in their squads, often undermining the position of the manager. Acton’s remark that ‘power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is often quoted but less often cited is the following sentence ‘great [individuals] are often bad [individuals]’. By this, he meant that they are often damaged personalities and certainly ruthless and egoistic enough to ensure that their views prevail. It is human nature to idealise stars, as emblems of the people we would like to be, but in truth, great performance in many fields is often at the expense of a rounded, well-balanced personality. (When coaching successful leaders, the coach often has to deal with fragile personalities who are nonetheless key to the success of their enterprises.)
We see other important elements in this Cup: most coaches will have introduced new discourses to the team – a discourse being a subset of a language like IT-speak, financial terminology or the vocabulary and concepts around emotional intelligence. So the England team now talk about ‘owning the process’ as evidence of the manager’s attempt to change their ways of thinking and thus behaviour. (This has been clear – thus far – in the penalty-taking where instead of considering themselves victims of a potentially horrendous environment, they focussed on what they were supposed to be doing.) The astute leadership coach also introduces new vocabularies and models to change perspectives, thoughts and action.
A coach also has to guide his client in the politics of an organisation (just as a football manager has to be practical vis-á-vis the realities of the referee’s authority, and the strength of the opposition). Constantly confronting a boss (or referee) might bolster the client’s sense of identity but is counter-productive, and here a coach would explore influencing strategies with the client (in football the coach might devise and explain a means of stymieing a better team through team-work and defensive discipline).
Finally, a coach in any context helps his/her client be aware of process rather than stasis: things change, and dynamics can shift rapidly. Just as a game changes when a catalytic substitute comes on or a forward enduring a barren patch scores a goal, so an executive can turn round a relationship with a colleague or boss by working on their empathy and understanding, instead of remaining in a vicious circle of mutual dislike or contempt. And there is too the moral dimension Camus wrote of: a coach can help a client stay true to their own values difficult thought that often is. And for those who see the World Cup as pointless he had words, too: ‘happiness and the absurd are two children of the same earth. They are inseparable.’
James Mackay is a Director and Founder of the Tavistock Institute’s course in Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development.
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