The extent to which they will be leaders will be determined by that mix of passion, ego that isn’t selfserving, and fierce undivided loyalty to the project, writes Fergus Finlay

DID you see that incident in the hurling semi-final replay last Saturday? An innocuous enough thing, it was a side-line decision that went against Kilkenny. Late on in the game, one of the Kilkenny players shouldered his Waterford opponent off the pitch. Most people thought it was a line ball for Kilkenny, but the referee instead penalised the Kilkenny player, and suddenly Waterford had a free in. Just one incident in a game packed full of drama.

But Brian Cody, the Kilkenny manager, went mad. First he seemed to roar at the referee, and then he turned on the Waterford management. His face was purple, and I imagine the air was too (though I’m no lip reader).

As we all know, Kilkenny went on to win an amazing game, and in the aftermath Cody was his usual phlegmatic self. But I found myself wondering. What is it that can stir such passion?

I don’t know whether moments like that are real or contrived — whether the passion bursts from within or is just a part of Cody’s tactical approach to the management of the game. He’s been nearly twenty years as an inter-county manager, with a record that will probably never be surpassed. At the start of this season, those who know about the game were writing that Kilkenny were well past their best and had lost most of their stars. But here they are again — all-Ireland finalists for the 15th time under Cody’s leadership.

In the end, I think there’s no doubt but that passion, bubbling under the surface whenever Cody is standing beside his team, goes to the heart of his leadership ability.

Of course leadership has other ingredients. Leaders have to be able to communicate, to listen, to make decisions and live with the consequences. They have to be able to plan and form a vision, to imagine how they want things to turn out, and to work out how to get from a to b (or sometimes to z). But the leader who lacks passion finds it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain all that.

The passion I’m talking about is passion for the project. A true leader is one who is committed to the success of what he or she believes in. They go to sleep at night thinking about the cause to which they are dedicated, and they wake up every morning with another tiny bit of the plan in place. Brian Cody is just one example of the kind of leader whose project is never far from his thoughts.

Leaders are loyal to the project first and foremost. There’s a bit of a jingle that Newstalk radio often uses at the start of its “Off the Ball” programme where Roy Keane is heard saying about Alex Ferguson “I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word loyalty”. That’s Keane’s fundamental misunderstanding. He means “I was loyal to Sir Alex, but he wasn’t loyal to me”.

Ferguson was loyal only to his club. He supported and mentored players, and often made them better than they were — his decision to make Eric Cantona captain of the club transformed both the player and the club. But if players outlived their usefulness to Manchester United (in Ferguson’s view) or thought they were too big for the club (again, in Ferguson’s view) he was absolutely ruthless in removing them. It didn’t matter if the rest of the world thought he was making a mistake — for Ferguson, the club was the project, and the project was the only thing that mattered.

Similarly, people have often remarked on how cold Cody can seem when the issue is the future of an individual player. When Henry Shefflin decided to retire, that was it. Although Cody subsequently launched Shefflin’s biography, his immediate reaction to Shefflin’s retirement was to figure out how to replace him.

That passion for the project, loyalty to the cause above all else, is what makes great political leaders too. When it isn’t there — when all you can see is ego masquerading as passion, or self-regard pretending to be loyalty — you know you’re looking at a charlatan who can’t survive.

Donald Trump is perhaps the best current example. Every leader has to have an ego — they have to have enough self-belief to be able to persuade others to share their vision. But when you look at Trump, all you see is ego. There is no passion for a project there.

Every time he says “Make America Great Again” you can see he’s talking about himself. The only honest answer he can give, if he’s asked what the project is, is to get himself elected. He’ll do anything, say anything, change any position, in pursuit of a goal that is entirely empty, because he has nothing to say about America. He displays passion in abundance, but it’s patently false.

Trump’s loyalty, like so much else about him, is also clearly, palpably, only to himself. Hillary Clinton got it dead right when she said, in her acceptance speech to the Democratic Convention, that Trump’s constant repetition of the phrase “I alone” was his biggest weakness.

When I look at the future of Irish politics, it’s that passion for a project that I want to see. It tends to be made up of the same ingredients — belief in the cause, loyalty to the outcome, a willingness to leave ego at the door in the interests of a bigger objective. We’ve seen it in the past with people like Lynch and Lemass — and we’ve seen the opposite, in the overweening ego of Haughey.

We’ve seen moments — and I believe the last government led by Enda Kenny was a good example — when an entire group of people dedicated themselves — and ultimately sacrificed themselves politically — to a single cause.

But over the next few months, perhaps over the next year or so, the torch is going to be passed to a new generation of Irish political leaders. The extent to which they will actually be leaders will be determined by that mix of passion, ego that isn’t self-serving, and fierce undivided loyalty to the project as they see it.

Within Fine Gael, we’re beginning to see battle lines being formed. There will be a contest, of ideas and personalities, and it will be fascinating to see how it develops. Fine Gaelers like to see themselves as gentlemanly about these things, but in fact these contests in the past — and the interim ones, like the last heave against Enda Kenny — have tended to be bruising affairs.

The rest of us won’t have a say in who wins. But we have a stake in seeing a real leader emerge. Whoever he or she is, we don’t have to compare them to Brian Cody or Alex Ferguson. But we all need to know what the project is. In Ferguson’s case it was the club, in Cody’s the county above all.

In both cases the way they achieved their project was by building a team, and always ensuring that the individuals were allowed to flourish, but never at the expense of the team. If our next generation of leaders have that sort of focus, we won’t do too badly.

The extent to which they will be leaders will be determined by that mix of passion, ego that isn’t self-serving, and fierce undivided loyalty to the project.


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