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3 June 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 8:31am

Michael Jordan-style leadership isn’t for everyone

In a time of crisis, what can sporting leadership tell us about the real thing?

By Jonathan Liew

As the world of English football dissolved into a foam of indecision and infighting, first over the terms of its cessation, and then over the terms of its restart, one word in particular seemed to keep cropping up: leadership. 

“A lack of leadership from the government, the FA and Premier League,” wrote Wayne Rooney in his Sunday Times column on the decision to halt professional football in March. “The lack of communication and leadership… cast doubt over ­everything,” said Gary Neville of the ­Premier League’s maladroit attempts to ­negotiate its resumption. 

Lower down the football pyramid, the frustration was just as palpable. “It’s badly lacking leadership,” was the verdict on the English Football League from Paul Lambert, the manager of Ipswich Town – who, more than two months after the suspension of play, have no idea whether the rest of the League One season is going to be played or not. “Will someone just make a decision?”

Nor was this phenomenon confined solely to football. “In these times, big leadership is needed and certainty is what will put minds at rest, but that can’t be given,” the former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll said of the continuing stasis in rugby union. 

Perhaps no sport is ever truly satisfied with its administrators. But over recent weeks, as the pandemic and its stiff economic headwind have threatened competitions, livelihoods, even entire sports, a sense of vacuum and vacillation has been manifest. As in wider society, a frightened and uncertain populace looks to its leaders to do… well, something. 

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That’s the nebulous thing about leadership: like class, style and the appropriate time to wear dungarees as an adult, it’s often easier to point out what it isn’t than to define what it is. So when athletes, coaches and fans decry an absence of leadership, what are they getting at? And – more relevantly – in a time of crisis, what can sporting leadership tell us about the real thing?

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The first point to make is that invariably – as Lambert so eloquently put it – doing something trumps doing nothing. Indeed, one of the most frequent charges levelled at governing bodies during the Covid-19 crisis has been inaction: the implication being that even in a dauntingly uncertain scenario, with facts and guidance shifting by the day, a leader is better off acting swiftly but wrongly than not at all. 

Act too soon, though, and you expose yourself in other ways. When Chase Carey, the chief executive of Formula 1 (F1), announced in late April a proposed calendar for the rest of the 2020 season, he was savaged for making empty promises. “Desperate and misguided, maybe at worst misleading,” was the verdict of Paul Hembery, the former head of Pirelli. 

Hembery was unstinting about the qualities required by F1’s leadership in the post-Covid world. “It’s going to need some big bollocks and vision,” he wrote. This is another frequent trope: the conflation of leadership with brazen, anatomically literal masculinity. One disgruntled Premier League manager recently confided that the league needed to show more “balls” in its negotiations with clubs. And the recent hit Netflix sports documentary miniseries The Last Dance portrays the legendary basketball player Michael Jordan as an uncompromising leader, unafraid, as he puts it, to “get in your ass a little bit”. This is what Harvard management gurus might describe as “confrontational leadership”, and the rest of us as being a bit of a twat. 

Perhaps, by contrast, it’s worth tracking the successes. The England and Wales Cricket Board has earned warm praise for its handling of the crisis so far. From the very start it clarified its priorities: international cricket, and the Twenty20 Blast that provides financial sustenance for so many counties. It established an emergency fund for grass-roots clubs. It was open and honest about the economies that would be required, while stressing that the entire sport was in it together. 

Rugby league, too, recognised the severe existential threat posed by Covid-19, and made a priority of lobbying government. In successive meetings, the Rugby Football League ruthlessly drilled home its key message that rugby league was a sport deeply embedded in its northern communities: places that, by the way, were now potential Conservative heartlands. The result was a £16m emergency loan that may well end up ensuring the sport’s survival. 

The traditional paradigm of British leadership – the Churchill-style figurehead who gets things done through sheer force of will – has been badly exposed by the complexity of the pandemic. Viruses aren’t rattled by soaring wartime rhetoric. Societies can’t be rebuilt by waving your enormous bollocks around. The modern leader needs to be rational, competent, transparent, flexible, compassionate. They need to build compromise and set aside self-interest. They need to be honest about their capabilities, but also about their limitations. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why some of the most effective pandemic leaders –  Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Mette Frederiksen, Tsai Ing-wen – have been women. 

By contrast, leaders who have ignored leadership’s most human qualities – accountability, openness, consensus – have struggled. Crude populists such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro have long mistaken belligerence for strength. Boris Johnson’s refusal to sack his most trusted adviser for a breach of lockdown protocol encapsulated his characteristic style of anti-leadership, one in which narrow partisan interest takes precedence over the common good. Securing leadership, it seems, is one thing; knowing what to do with it, entirely another. 

This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe