8 November 2017

Iron Fists and Soft Touches: The Balancing Act of Leadership

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

We’ve spoken about how the modern style of leadership requires a nuanced humanist approach where an individual is emboldened to make mistakes. In this ever changing world, obtaining collective buy-in from every member of the team is crucial to creating a winning environment. But is there still space for a more hard-nosed, authoritative style of leadership? We asked two of the leading minds in world sport, both of whom presented at our Elite Sport Summit earlier this year, to share their thoughts on the subject.

Ed Orgeron, head coach of Louisiana State University's football team, gets stuck into his players during a game.

Ed Orgeron, head coach of Louisiana State University's football team, gets stuck into his players during a game.

If one needed reminding that we live in a confusing and polarising period in human history, Collins Dictionary has recently declared “fake news” as their word of the year.

According to Collins Dictionary’s lexicographers, the usage of the phrase had increased by 365% since 2016. The term has become a mantra of US President Donald Trump who regularly tweets it to his 42.5 million followers in retaliation to a disparaging news report or article.

The phrase encapsulates the divisive times we inhabit and whether you agree with the President’s policies or respect him as a leader, he has shone a light on the biases that have always existed in news reporting.

What the phrase has also done, is help solidify the barriers that divide those on the left and right of the political and ideological spectrum. If you have ever had the displeasure of wading through the quagmire that is a comment thread online, you may have noticed that certain phrases and ad hominins are used to insult and instigate.

"Libtard”, “cuck” and “snowflake” are primarily used in order to emasculate and intimidate. People who use these phrases are often doing so as a direct response to what they perceive as a softening of society. These people yearn for the good old days of tough men, straight talkers and all-action doers.

I wonder what they’d make then of the modern approach to leadership in elite sport. At the recent 2017 CONQA: Elite Sport Summit, almost every speaker who took the stage encouraged a holistic and inclusive style of leadership.

A leader who is able to obtain the collective buy-in from every individual within an organisation can create a cohesive unit with everyone pulling in the same direction. Modern coaches, managers and captains will tell you that the best way to do this is to appeal to treat everyone with respect and forgo the old dictatorial style of coaching.

But does that mean that the old school has gone the way of the dinosaurs? Is there any room for the authoritative leader who doles out instructions with an iron will?

According to Ben Ryan, the man whose face now adorns Fiji’s 50 cent coin after he helped guide the men’s 7s rugby team to Olympic gold in Rio last year, the message hinges on its delivery.

“It’s how you frame it,” Ryan said at the Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town in October this year. “You have to set your programme out right so that “my way” is actually “our way”. Any decision that is made is one made by the collective and not because the coach has changed his mind. I can be dictatorial about what we’ve decided together but not what I’ve decided as an individual.”

Speaking at the event, Grant Downie, head of performance at Manchester City’s academy, echoed Ryan’s sentiments but added, “We’re in a world that needs individuals to feel empowered. It is important to get buy-in but we’ll always need leaders. It’s important to get the balance right.”

Both men outline a bottom up approach to achieving this balance.  Every rule or outline for a player’s code of conduct needs to be understood by everyone within the organisation.

Not only that, each player needs to play an active role in compiling the list of rules that are applicable to every team member. As Ryan says, “If a player steps out of line, he’s not breaking the coach’s rule; he’s breaking his own rule.”

If this is understood throughout the organisation, the leader can then be decisive when needing to make tough decision. For example, Ryan axed a member of the Fijian Olympic squad during the competition for an unforgivable misdemeanour.

“A player stepped over the line we all agreed could not be crossed,” Ryan explains. “It was unacceptable and I had to drop him even though it was an unpopular decision and was not something I wanted to do.”

The leeway afforded to players will depend on the leader but also on the age of the athlete. Downie works directly with young child athletes and he explains how a hard line might not work with them all.

“We always try and develop the person first and the footballer second,” Downie says. “If we lose that, we see something derail. However, we can still teach the kids to take responsibility. We very much believe in obtaining their buy-in in terms of what is acceptable and what is not, but it is important to take control of a situation when it gets out of hand.”

What does that look like? Again it will depend on the individual coach as well as the individual athlete. It is a cliché to state that some people need an arm around their shoulder and some need a rollicking, but the theory holds.

Manchester United’s legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson once famously spared Eric Cantona the “hairdryer treatment” after the star striker lost control of his senses and attempted to kung-fu kick a fan in the stands.

It usually didn’t take much to rile Ferguson and yet he chose not to dish out his wrath to the Frenchman even at a time when he perhaps deserved it. As former United defender Gary Pallister told the Daily Mail, “We all wondered how the manager would deal with Eric.

“He had never had the hairdryer. Virtually everyone else had, but not Eric. We wondered if finally this was it. We expected Fergie to go berserk. But he didn’t. Hardly anything was said immediately after in the dressing room. We couldn’t believe it.”

Even the most outwardly aggressive and easily angered managers need to contain themselves in certain situations. As Downie says, “Sir Alex was not a dictator. He was the leader of an organisation with many people and many moving parts - who was always thinking about how to get the best of the collective. The image that he was a dictator is not the real image. He was a leader who needed to make tough decisions and most of the time he got them right.”

Ultimately, in elite sport, the buck stops with the coach or manager in charge. It’s his or her head on the chopping block should results start to go awry and every leader needs to be decisive when making a decision. But that doesn’t mean a coach can’t be flexible and adapt to shifting trends.

“You’re the coach and it is your responsibility to lead,” Ryan says. “You may need to lead the team down alleyways that they don’t want to go and that’s okay so long as you have that connection with the players. Bring it back to performance, be honest with them, be black and white in your decision making. When they don’t get it right there needs to be consequences and that’s when you need to step up as a leader.”

The age of the dictator may be gone which is for the best. However, in an age of safe spaces where personal feelings matter more than they ever have, astute leadership is required. Only the very best are able to combine soft touches with iron fists.

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