I was interviewed by a student paper the other day, and asked what I had wanted to be when I was 7, 14 and 21. The answer was footballer, footballer and footballer even if, probably by age 7, and certainly by age 14, I knew it wasn’t going to happen.
But even if you don’t fulfil your original ambition, you can fulfil variations of them in later life, when you have fulfilled a few other non-related ones. So what that I was 49 by the time I made my international debut in a charity match alongside Diego Maradona, Gianfranco Zola, David Ginola, Dunga, Marcel Desailly, Peter Schmeichel and others? Or 50 by the time Pele was wandering into the dressing room at Stoke City to wish me luck in another charity match, and 51 when I nutmegged Graeme Le Saux at Wembley, a few seconds before he got his revenge.
The Maradona match was up there in my top twenty all time experiences. So was my first marathon, my first triathlon, my first ascent of Mont Ventoux, my run in Ethiopia with Haile Gebreselassie and Paul Tergat, all done when I was well into my forties.
And one of the best things about my life of relative freedom now is that a fair bit of it revolves around sport, doing it, watching it, watching my kids do it, advising on it, thinking about it, meeting people in it.
So yesterday to a conference at Stamford Bridge on leadership in sport, where I was interviewing Lance Armstrong’s brilliant sporting director, John Bruyneel, and where earlier I managed to catch a session, and then have lunch with, Arsene Wenger and legendary baseball coach Billy Beane, who will be known to anyone who has read Moneyball.
Sport may be different to politics, but one of the reasons I love it is because you can learn so much about one via the other. I know Ed Miliband and David Cameron had other things on their plates yesterday, what with shadow cabinet elections and rows with defence chiefs, but both could have learned a lot listening to Wenger, Beane and Bruyneel, huge achievers in their chosen fields, and real experts in the building of teams.
Over lunch, the Arsenal manager accepted that it was easier to manage difficult members of the team in sport – you got rid of them – than in politics, where even if you sacked them, they were still hanging around the pitch and the changing room. Likewise as a result of the shadow cabinet elections system, Ed Miliband cannot even pick his top team, which may seem like it is healthily democratic, but in leadership and team building terms is a dreadful model.
Yet so many of the principles of leadership and team building are the same in both arenas. Clarity of purpose and objective. (Still a bit woolly from DC, and too early to see from EM). The requirement of an obsession about winning matched by a hatred of losing, requiring attention to every detail, and the margin of every detail that may have an impact upon outcome and performance. (Child benefit policy announcement suggests DC not great on attention to detail). Honest and ongoing analysis of strengths and weaknesses, of your own and of your opponents. Special attention for the special players. Never underestimating your opponents, or devising strategy according to what you want to be the truth, rather than what in reality it may be. (Labour activists have a habit of imagining everyone thinks like they do – to be avoided). Tenacity, never giving up, fighting hardest when the battle is toughest. Constant pushing of boundaries … I loved Wenger’s quote ‘the comfort-zone is the enemy of top level sport … every day is a battle between the comfort zone and “can I be the best?”‘
I have met Wenger before and have wondered whether he hasn’t been a bit suspicious because of my friendship with Alex Ferguson. Perhaps because their enmity has cooled in recent years, yesterday he could not have been warmer nor more giving in terms of insight. He definitely has a touch of the genius about him. He is a deep thinker.
He also knows the importance of always keeping your players on their toes, understanding they need the leader more than he needs them. Billy Beane put it another way – if your team wins eight in a row, you still have to make sure there is a ‘level of discomfort’ in the ranks, that they do not assume they are now invincible.
What came over from Wenger, much more than in his interviews, was a real understanding of humanity and human nature, and that too is one of the keys to leadership. He said people are lost in their dreams … they say they want to be the greatest player, or the greatest actress, or they want to stop drinking … ‘I say what is your plan? Your plan right now? What are you doing right now, in this moment, to make the dream come true?’
With data analysis now so much a part of elite sport, he was asked if he would like to see the day when managers could hire players without even meeting them, because so much information was available. He pulled a face, and said No, certainly not. ‘The value of the human being,’ he said ‘is to see, and to love.’ He loves good footballers, but the judgement is not just about their data, but about their personality, their character, their family, their friends.
Then there is another ingredient – he wants them to be frustrated, angry sometimes, always wanting to do more, to get better, to keep motivating themselves to keep improving.
Sport, politics, it’s all about people. Understanding them. Wanting them to do well. For themselves, and for others. Building them as a team. In politics, so much of the focus is on the leaders. But it is teams that win.