Giant failure of leadership leaves nation aghast

A leader's job is to take the heat, hold steady, judge just how far you can push people. We waited in vain for Keane or McCarthy to show this kind of strength.

We are exhausted. For the past week we have been in the grip of an emotional emergency - what Daniel Goleman calls an emotional hijack .

The hallmarks are all there: a threat ("Something is happening that is making us afraid, that is going to hurt us"); an intense concentration on managing the threat; and, once the moment has passed, wondering what on earth come over us.

But it wasn't just about football. We all watched aghast at a monumental failure of leadership. And we are right to be concerned about that. The Irish team was worth fighting for - spirited, generous, good-humoured, and, up to now, a model of good relations. To see it disintegrate before your eyes into a display of wounded male pride was a sorry sight. It was like witnessing a particularly harrowing family disintegration, a modern re-playing of the parable of the Prodigal Son. But this time, there was no wise father.

By yesterday, Mick McCarthy has already re-established his dented authority. He had expelled the troublesome son, forced him to account for himself in public. If he knew anything about Roy Keane, he must have known that the player's hesitant, emotional performance in the Tommie Gorman interview was the best he could do in the way of an apology. He was looking to his leader for an emotional opening. But Mick McCarthy wanted more.

As late as yesterday, he again demanded an apology and said he would then "discuss" things with the team - conjuring up the mental image of the team meeting that provoked the fatal outburst, Roy Keane in a one-down position, being discussed by his team mates.

"To lead is to live dangerously," concludes Ron Heifetz, director of Harvard University's Centre for Public Leadership.

Why? Because effective leadership, the kind that challenges people to be their best selves, that guides people through difficult change, usually generates pain and anger. At the critical moment of change, all that people can see is the potential for loss. And the leader's job is to learn to take the heat, to hold steady, to judge just how far you can push people.

If a leader can do that without becoming personally defensive, it generates trust and high performance. History delights in people who demonstrate that capacity, says Heifetz. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi: all earned credibility and moral authority by accepting the anger directed at them with grace.

In all the discussion, all the emotional turmoil, the acres of newsprint, the crowded airwaves, this is what we were looking for. From Roy Keane, from Mick McCarthy. But we were prepared to forgive Roy, the Prodigal Son. What makes Roy Keane great on the football field is his exuberant risk-taking, his aggressive flamboyance, his fast decision-taking. These are the exact qualities that also get him into trouble. Mick McCarthy's job as leader was clear: to create a safe holding environment for such a flawed but heroic talent.

So we looked to the the older, wiser McCarthy to put himself on the line and live dangerously, as leaders must. Now it's all ended in tears. And there will be hell to pay.

The Irish team going out on Saturday are not just facing Cameroon. They will also in a sense be playing against themselves, and the ghost of Roy Keane. Even if we do well on the field - and we all fervently hope we will - the result will be a nil-all draw for leadership.

Originally published in The Irish Times. 


Posted: 29 May 2002