Wayne Rooney is arguably the most talented English footballer playing at present. He has had a turbulent time since last summer, beginning with poor displays at the World Cup, followed by injuries, private life problems, a dispute over his contract at Manchester United. All this has been accompanied by acts of violence on the field. His play last year was outstanding ,even by his own high standards.
Last week, [April 2nd 2011] his season became simultaneously better and worse. MUFC appeared to be losing a chance to win the Championship. The team had gone two goals down to West Ham. The players were signalling their frustration at their own defensive errors which had produced two penalties and two goals. Sir Alex Ferguson, MU’s brilliant and truculent manager, was f serving a touchline ban. At half-time, his on-field changes were quickly shown to be tactically shrewd. Later, it emerged he had been in calm, not fiery (“hair dryer”) mode. Some might say he showed creative leadership, withdrawing a key attacker, Ryan Giggs, to defence, to beef up the attack with substitutes.
There followed an astonishing surge of energy led by Rooney, who scored three goals in fifteen minutes. Rooney kept outwardly calm for the first two goals. Then on scoring the third appeared to lose all composure, and carried out an uncontrolled celebration with his teammates before mouthing obscenities to a TV camera.
A remarkable level of public outrage was expressed in the media, mostly calling for Rooney to be punished as severely as possible. Popular outrage was expressed sometimes in terms which were agrgy, bitter, and ranking with Rooney’s in fury and obscene content. The FA announced [Monday April 4th] that Rooney would be fined and serve a two-match ban.
There are leadership lessons to be gleaned from the incident and its consequences.
Lesson No 1: An incident takes on significance if sense can be made of it in symbolic terms.
The sense-making permits various leaders to seek to influence by identifying a scapegoat as symbolic object of hate and anger. Journalists and football pundits made sense of the action as a continuation of Rooney’s unacceptably violent and crude public behaviour. His immense wealth, his public escapades, his under-privileged background and lack of formal education were also introduced as part of the story. The overall story was accompanied by fury and obscenities which matched Rooney’s, but without the display of football genius.
Lesson No 2: A great football manager is able to influence some events and not others. Sir Alex influenced the team, and arguably its actions at half-time.
Famously, an earlier incident with another football genius led Eric Cantona to be banned after a kung-fu style kick on an opposing fan mouthing abuse at him during a match. There is, as a leadership guru puts it a circle of influence which is smaller than a circle of concern
Lesson No 3: The Football Association has not revealed great leadership skills
Its style tends to be highly reactive: to see the need for strong leadership after a high-publicity incident. Each incident is treated apparently in isolation and the outcome some punishment deemed appropriate but without communication of the wider strategy involved.
Lesson No 4: The media contributes to the process through which perceptions about leaders are co-created.
It is the process which results in the Leaders We Deserve. Commentators increasingly have a style which matches the emotional mood of ‘ordinary’ football fans. This differs from the voices of a decade or so ago which on the BBC tended to be calmer and more authoritative (for better or worse).
Lesson No 5: The selected ‘solutions’ to Rooney’s behaviour suggest a crude map of leadership dynamics
The FA style seems based on a set of beliefs about power and influence, and in particular about the way to discipline out undesired behaviours. . It ignores historical evidence that Sticks and carrots have limited motivational impact. Whipping an enraged dog may stop a dog fight. Fear of another whipping is not enough to stop the dog fighting again.
That is not to say that Rooney should not be punished. It is to say that without wider events becoming part of the sense we make of the incident, not a lot will change into the future as a result of leadership actions.
A leadership dilemma
The dilemma for Manchester United is that the self-motivated fury and energy of Rooney contributes both to his greatest football achievements and (perhaps) also to his reactions to a world in which he plays such an edgy and visible part.