Kevin Keegan and the limits of charisma

kevin-keegan-green-cross.jpgKevin Keegan’s triumphal return to Newcastle United Football Club demonstrates the power of charisma. But will it also indicate its limitations?

On Wednesday January, 2007, a major sports story broke in England. Unlike some stories, this one began big, but the after- shocks of the first story were even bigger.

The football story of January had been the sacking of Sam Allardyce from his post as chief coach at Newcastle United. This was sporting news, but hardly surprising. The only element of certainty about Sam, in face of a cluster of difficulties on and off the field, was the timing of his sacking.
The end was mercifully swift, but that too was unexpected, as Sam was on his way to a press conference.

The consensus view that had developed outside the club was that the culture had held unreasonable expectations, and that Sam’s days were numbered, even if his team were to improve on a modest start to the season.

An unhelpful culture, and a new ownership regime were local factors assumed to add to problems including a stack of injuries to key players, such as striker Michael Owen.

Our people need a saviour

Part of the culture seems to be a deep emotional need for a saviour. The conditions for acceptance of a charismatic leader seem to be particularly favourable. Opinion polls (backed up by betting patterns) indicated how strong was the yearning for such a person.

At first, the front-runner was not Kevin Keegan, but the more recent figure of Alan Shearer. Even as he was reaching the end of his playing career, Alan Shearer was being mentioned as a future manager of the club.

This is the sentiment generated by a great on-the-pitch leader. At Manchester United, I can (just about) remember the terrace talk around ‘Captain Marvel’, Bryan Robson as future leader off the field. Robson made the transition to manager with some struggle. There seemed to be rather less talk a few years later around Mark Hughes, or even Roy Keene, each of iconic status at the club, and who were to make more promising starts to subsequent management careers.

Shearer the once and future saviour at Newcastle

During his time as England captain, Shearer was widely regarded as a thoroughly uncharismatic character when he appeared before the media. He often appeared truculent and sulky. Hardly the characteristics associated with the charismatic leader. On the field he exercised the selfishness of the individual goal scorer in the van Nistelrooy or Gary Lineker mould,

This aspect of Shearer’s public persona is rarely mentioned now by fans or commentators. Nor did it seem to matter to the clamouring fans last week that Shearer has no experience in football management. The symbolic power of the Shearer myth was sweeping all before it.

Except for one little point

Shearer quickly indicated he had not been approached by the club, and felt he was too inexperienced for the vacancy. Shearer was replaced as front-runner, but Keegan did not become the front-runner. In quick succession other names came and went. There was Harry Rednapp who seemed to me to tick as few boxes as Allardyce for the bare-breasted brigade of Newcastle fans.

After Harry’s Andy Warhol moment there was Jurgen Klinsmann .
The German FA had turned to Klinsmann in desperation and the national team did better than the fearful host nation expected. Klinsmann also is more of an identifit figure of a charismatic personality on the field, and closer to the articulate end of the spectrum off the field. Klinsman’s name also reappeared briefly in media stories after Shearer appeared to be a non-runner.

Maybe its Keegan and Shearer

After denials by Klinsmann, another rumour, that a deal had been struck with the dream-team of Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer who would share managerial responsibilities.

The Messiah returns

Then the bombshell. The last rumour was partly correct. Kevin Keegan had agreed to become the new manager at Newcastle. He is to return from self-imposed exile (as do many charismatic leaders from religious and political mythology).

Note to any readers from cultures distant from that of England: Football is often spoken of in religious terms. This is sometimes unconscious, but often tinged with irony. These are deep matters indeed, and you will have to do some ethnographic research, perhaps starting at Shearer’s Bar in Newcastle, to make more sense of it than I have been able to.

What happened next?

Many strange things happened. They are all extensively recorded. Crowds came to bear witness. They did not wave palm leaves, but did have banners saying The Messiah is Coming. Others said Kev the King. I particularly liked more secular Super-K ones, made from family-size Kellogg’s packs. Now there’s a thought. Kelloggs to take over as sponsor of NUFC from Northern Rock?

Thousands of extra fans flocked to the holy of holies, St James Park, for a FA replay against Stoke City, where re-enthused players scored a convincing win, witnessed too by Super-K.

The Press Conference

Keegan’s first press conference was another early indication of the charismatic leader in action.

Keegan had the necessary air of confidence in himself as the special one destined to do a special job. The video clip will make excellent and instructional viewing for leaders and students of leadership.

The charismatic performance

I have watched many performances (for that is what they are) by leaders and would-be leaders over the years. This one was up there with the old classics and newer examples of the inspirational style.

In British sport, there were the unrivalled performances by Jose Mourinho.

In business, there have been various appearances of Richard Branson as super-leader, and the recently mourned John Harvey-Jones.

In national politics, there were the two conference speeches by David Cameron, each considered to be high-voltage and influential in confirming his leadership credentials and style. There was the even more emotionally-charged adieu from Tony Blair recently, and (for me) many years earlier, Neil Kinnock’s finest oratory, when he successfully confronted the growing influence of the militant wing of his party in an electrifying conference speech.

Kevin’s magical moment

Keegan’s performance was up there with these magical moments.

By coincidence, it took place on a day when a new and glamorous national hero had been acclaimed after a near-disaster crash of a Boeing 777 arriving at Heathrow. Captain Peter Burkill had been claimed an iconic figure of Hollywood proportions, although the near- perfect story was slightly blurred as it emerged that the in crucial last minutes, it was first officer John Coward who had responsibility for taking over from the automatic landing system as the engines failed to respond to orders.

Leadership musings before the first match

Whatever happens, the first match played in the time of King Kev was going to be high-voltage, high drama, big box-office.

But whatever happens in that match, the drama is still early into its first act.

Update: After the first league game [Saturday 19th January 2008]

The first game was as emotional at the start as expected. But according to the BBC

Kevin Keegan’s return as Newcastle boss turned into a damp squib with a desperately poor goalless draw against Bolton at St James’ Park.

So we can conclude one thing. The new-leader bounce did not take place. These players did not have hidden reserves that could be called forth, either from fear for their futures,. or from those mysterious motivational forces triggered by encounter with a charismatic leader.

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One Response to Kevin Keegan and the limits of charisma

  1. [...] leadership with Jose Mourinho and Kevin Keegan as case examples. These were contrasted with the post-charismatic ideas of modest leaders of fierce [...]

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