The Tale of Two Leaders: George Burley and Gordon Brown
The Scotsman, September 15th 2009
Two embattled leaders, both bedevilled by crisis and calls for their heads, with talk of mutiny and rebellion all around.
One of these leaders is George Burley, ill-fated manager of the Scotland national team who last week failed to qualify for their sixth international tournament in a row. The other is Gordon Brown, leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister, who has survived several coups and assassination plots, and struggles on despite his inability to inspire people or set a positive direction.
Both of these leaders have obvious failings which have been long evident. Burley had questions about his character before the Scotland appointment, having walked out of the Hearts job when his reputation and the potential of the team were at their height.
Gordon Brown’s limitations were long known before he became Prime Minister, in his ten-year stint at the Treasury where his penchant for command and control were self-evident, in his part in the ‘dual monarchy’ of Blair and Brown, and in his contemptuous view of colleagues and rivals in the Labour Party.
The prevailing account of these two men emphasises the personal qualities lacking in both. The argument goes that Burley and Brown may have abilities and faced difficulties, but they haven’t shown the true grit of real leaders, but instead dug themselves deeper into the holes they are in. Far better to stand down and let both Scottish football and the Labour Party have a fresh start.
This perspective fails to acknowledge the relationship between leadership and context, and the changing environment of leadership itself. Looking at the wider context, George Burley faces not only a nadir of Scottish footballing quality, but also a haphazard structure of the game with three football authorities (SFA, SPL, SFL) for a small country and lots of gatekeepers, committees and bigwigs.
Burley’s post in its nominal power only reaches out to choosing the national team and is restricted from a remit over the whole game – such as youth development and sports facilities. The Scottish game has historically been hamstrung by such structures – and only a rich legacy of football talent has ever allowed us at points to punt above our weight.
It took until 1954 for the SFA to appoint a part time manager, and an advert for the post in 1966 stated that it ‘might suit a man with other business interests’. And while we bewail the fate of the national team – we have fallen further not that long ago – in 1972 not qualifying for seven major tournaments in a row – when given the footballing talent at our deposal this was even more criminal.
Gordon Brown’s plight focuses on his ‘psychological flaws’ and less the stories of Labour failure, long-term, with the inadequacies of Labour Governments post-Attlee to set the political weather, and more immediately, in the journey and destination of New Labour leading it to embrace much of Thatcherism.
Labour has for as long as anyone can remember been a pretty poor vehicle for social democratic and progressive values. What was the lasting legacy of Harold Wilson’s four election victories beyond the claim that Labour was ‘the natural party of government’? Likewise Tony Blair’s three election victories which have left the party hugging the Tories on the centre-right on issue after issue.
Leaders matter. Maybe a different Scots manager would have given us victory over Holland last week. Perhaps a different Labour PM would be less devious and dithering, less shaped by the black arts, and less tribalist. Yet, new people in charge of the Scotland national team and Labour could not challenge the underlying fact that these are two institutions in crisis and beset by systemic problems.
The issue of leadership in an age of cynicism, post-trust and 24/7 media which relentlessly focuses on personality requires people who can handle intense pressure and make immediate decisions. Roosevelt, Churchill, Clem Attlee – the sort of people always cited as those who rose above day-to-day events and answered the call of their country didn’t have to operate in such a hothouse environment.
Leaders now have to be natural optimists, imbue a sense of effortless self-confidence, and be in many respects, actors who combine the politics of statecraft and stagecraft.
This inevitably leads to the emergence of leaders such as Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; a category David Cameron would belong to. These are politicians who people feel comfortable with and could imagine engaging in a conversation. They appear natural communicators in the modern age, and the sort of decisive, intelligent leaders who know across a range of issues that they have to take instant actions and then stick to them.
However, our experiences with Blair, Clinton and Bush II has not been a happy one. These leaders fed the monster that is the 24/7 media and rushed to make a series of ill judged, off -the-hoof decisions the implications of which will haunt us for decades.
This type of leader with their optimism, confidence and focus on the outer world doesn’t want to face the deeper questions humanity has to face, or focus us on them: witness David Cameron’s Blair-lite attempt not to define much of the Conservative agenda this side of the election.
Gordon Brown and George Burley are deeply flawed individuals and leaders, but so are most people when faced with such pressures and challenges. Instead of caricaturing and blaming the individual the time is surely right in the early 21st century to have an honest debate about what makes a leader and what our expectations as a public is of them.
Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu threw light on the kind of leader we should be on the lookout for: ‘As for the best leaders, the people hardly notice their existence. The next best they hate and the next best they fear. But when the best leaders work is done, the people will say ‘we did it ourselves’.’