We first had our doubts that he had when he explained the rationale behind the appointment of Steve Staunton as international team manager. “We picked Steve because he is a strong character and a motivator and I know he has a huge, unrivalled knowledge of the dressing room,” stated Irish football’s chief executive at the time. “We wanted a man to get passion back into the side. I’m certain Steve Staunton is the ideal character to get the players doing that.”
Eighteen months later, of course, John wasn’t so certain. To be fair to him and to Staunton, the Gaffer was a strong character. As even Stan’s most ardent critic, Eamon Dunphy would concede, Staunton was a great football man, even a great man. But that was the crux of the problem. Too often in sport, and especially in Irish soccer, people in power subscribe to what’s known as the Great Man theory of leadership.
In this school of thought, leaders don’t have certain skills, they have certain “qualities”. Not enough value is placed on the situation where their perceived leadership talents came to the fore.
About the one upside of Staunton’s appointment was that it finally highlighted just how pivotal he had been in steadying and galvanising the rest of the Irish team at the 2002 World Cup after Roy Keane combusted in Saipan. But that was a backs-to-the-walls scenario when a back-to-basics approach and blunt, even industrial, language was required. Delaney’s fundamental error was to think that style was transferable to other situations. Instead of having an appreciation of situational theory, he was a signed-up subscriber to the idea of a Great Man.
Nearly five years on from Staunton’s dismissal and Irish football could be approaching a similar dilemma. While Giovanni Trapattoni probably was, for a considerable period, the right man for Irish football, the suspicion now is that he’s not the right leader to bring this team forward.
The answer lies within a book that Delaney — and Trap himself — could well do with reading. In fact it would be hugely encouraging if they were even open to the idea of opening it. In Mindset, the renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck claims that top performers are constantly open to the idea of learning and improving and changing. They possess what she terms the growth mindset. Even when they lose, they don’t so much fail as learn and adapt, which is why they come back to win again.
The converse of that is someone with a fixed mindset. Someone, sadly, like Trap.
We couldn’t help but laugh — and worry — when we heard Marco Tardelli’s comments last week. “Why should we change? In four years we’ve achieved good results. Alex Ferguson has played with the same system for 30 years.”
But, of course, Fergie has repeatedly changed his systems, on and off the field. Recently when Ryan Giggs was asked what has defined Ferguson’s greatness and longevity, he his Ferguson’s ability to change with the times; in other words, his growth mindset.
Trap once had it. So did Justin and Babs in hurling, Brian Clough in English football. But then they came to a point where they felt they knew enough, nearly every reference point led back to them. They developed a fixed mindset, one that would resist and fear change.
As Dweck puts it, “People with the fixed mindset opt for success over growth, trying to prove that they’re special, that they’re superior... They are not a work in progress, they view themselves as a finished product. And finished products have to protect themselves, lament and blame. Everything but change.”
Dweck terms it CEO disease. Lee Iacocca of Chrysler Motors was someone who had a bad does of it. He kept bringing out the same car models over and over again with only superficial changes. Sadly, they were models no one wanted anymore. Meanwhile the Japanese were completely rethinking how cars should look and run.
Football’s no different. The Spanish have become like the Japanese. Trap has become like Iacocca.
There is an alternative. Dweck cites the example of General Electric’s Jack Welch. Once he had the fixed mindset. In his autobiography he has a chapter called ‘Too Full of Myself’, outlining how he made a mess of an investment that cost the company tens of millions. But he learned, namely the difference between healthy self-confidence and hubris. Self-confidence, he wrote, “is the courage to be open, to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.” Welch didn’t claim to be a genius or great leader, he just promised to grow. His company was about growth, not his own self-importance. If only we could say that about Trap.
It comes down to a simple equation. If Trap doesn’t change and quickly, he should be changed.