People who’ve worked with me know I have two basic metaphors for teamwork that I bring up ad nauseum: working in a kitchen and being in a band. The football recently means I’ve been thinking a fair bit about team sports and how I might add them to my stock of mental models. Gareth Southgate’s management style and the way the culture of the team has changed is remarkable, especially insomuch as it is evident from the outside. Two points are striking to me.
First that the team used the wonderful phrase "working hard for each other" in interviews. This is a lovely phrase, that is especially pertinent to working in a co-operative where you are literally working for each other, as well as for one's collaborators.
Second that the team were consistently respectful of opponents and humble even in victory. Rather than falling in love with themselves, the message was "one beer to celebrate, but as soon as we are in the dressing room we are thinking about the next match". In talking about opponents, the line was "they are a good team, playing at the top of their game - you don't get this far without being good - we will take a careful look at how they play".
In political conflict - big and small-P - from community organising up - one of the most obvious errors to make is to underestimate one's opponents and allow hubris to set in. I think we really saw this when Boris Johnson became PM in 2019. The Labour Party at the time underestimated his potential popularity and the skillsets of those around him, like Dominic Cummings and Vote Leave and Issac Levido and team. I thought in 2019 a General Election with a Brexit framing was going to be a disaster for Labour. One of the fundamental reasons people didn't perceive this was a lack of respect for opponents. Thinking that the situation would be a re-run of 2017 and that Johnson was an easily framed and disorganised charlatan, instead of the leader of the most effective electoral force in world history. The Tories made the same mistake in 2017, believing the press line on the Corbyn movement, rather than considering their strengths and the advantages provided by a distributed mass membership. Labour made a mistake having an extended movement-wide victory lap after 2017. As soon as you get in the locker room, it's focussing on the next match, against a good team, at the top of the game. Though it's for kids, I’ve bought Southgate’s book, so will see what other interesting stuff is in it.
I was thinking that I’ve had experience in bands and in kitchens but never in sports teams. Then I remembered this wasn’t quite the case.
I never played much football at school but the thing I did play was Rugby. I had a South African Rugby teacher called Mr Jardine. Mr Jardine had a ringing accent and in my memory looks like The Rock.
He taught me two important lessons. First that regardless of the size of someone, they can’t run without their legs. I played Rugby Union. I was on the second row of the scrum for a while but had a better time as a full back - the last line of defence before a try can be scored. As a full back, sometimes you can make the difference with a well-timed tackle even when someone is much larger than you. There is probably something here also about campaigning or political struggle: no matter the seeming strength of an opponent, if they have a weakness and maybe if they can’t move, they also can’t win.
Second that for him, rugby was not about strength but about courage and commitment. This was a drill, a mantra for the team he coached. He’d ask us “what is Rugby about” and we’d say “courage and commitment sir”. “That’s right”, he’d say. I told my Dad about this. He’s from Hull. Rugby League is in their blood up there. He said “that’s right”. Courage and commitment, not physical strength. That's what Rugby is about.
I think about this quite often. I'm a big fan and user of the scrum agile project management methodology. One of the scrum values is courage and another is commitment. People who’ve worked with me know I’m keen to say courage is one of the most important scrum values to me. As a teenage Manics fan, I was always a bit taken by the Futurists, who were quoted in the liner notes for their debut album Generation Terrorists. This is despite the Futurist's openly misogynistic, anti-feminist and proto-Fascist bent, which I was aware of and uncomfortable with at the time. In Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto they say "the essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt". This I had pinned to my bedroom wall as a teenager, if not actually, then at least mentally.
Between Marinetti and friends and Mr Jardine, my teenage self was pretty set up. The thing is, reflecting now, they come as a pair. Commitment to causes, to others, to teams comes with courage. Courage requires commitment. And vice versa.