16 04 2021 Insights Thought Leadership

Playing fair; having your back

Reading time: 3 mins

Roy Keane Brendan O Connell1

In our recent interview with football legend Roy Keane, Brendan O’Connell asked him to identify the leadership qualities that set apart the great captains under whom Roy played during his career. What Roy said in response to this was that they were all really good blokes. He said that it’s a given that you have to be good at what you do but these guys, who wear no halos, he said, were the type of guys that you want to be in the trenches with.

I’ve given some thought to this perspective and to what is a “really good bloke”, or the female equivalent, whether you’re on the playing pitch or in business. Firstly, perhaps, it’s appropriate to identify what the really good bloke is not, or does not need to be. The really good bloke does not have to be liked. Or popular. Efforts by any leader to strive to be so may well impede his or her ability to make difficult or unpleasant decisions that need to be made for the good of the business but may adversely affect individuals. That is not for a minute to say that there aren’t tons of leaders who are both liked and popular. However, it’s not in the job description.

I think that the really good bloke is, most of all, fair. Fairness has many ingredients. If I am being fair, I must be open and I must be honest even where – particularly where - that openness and honesty leads inexorably to a conversation that I would prefer not to have and the person with whom I am having the conversation is upset by it. Openness and honesty require excellent communication which, in turn, is the bedrock upon which trust is founded. I may be the best strategist for my business. I may have the midas touch when it comes to turning opportunities into revenue. However, if I don’t tell the team what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, I run the risk of having my motives questioned; not because I’m making, or have made, any bad decision but because the team don’t understand the reason for some of those decisions. And they don’t understand what I’m doing because I haven’t shared my vision and I haven’t told them what I’m doing or why. Poor communication leads to suspicion, disconnection and a lack of engagement. Where there is poor communication, there are inevitably low levels of trust.

Many people shy away from the so called hard conversation. We don’t like conflict. We don’t want to upset people. It’ll work itself out. Not having the hard conversation is deeply unfair. It allows a person who, perhaps, has performance issues to become deluded as to their ability, their contribution, their prospects and/or their future. More than that, it prevents people who may be well able to become much better at what they’re doing the opportunity to become much better at what they’re doing. Allowing people to believe that they are something that they are not is dishonest, unfair and, frankly, weak.

The really good bloke has to be fairly thick skinned. Open, honest and frank communication is often not well received. The messenger often gets shot. Such a reaction must never dissuade that really good bloke from continuing to do the right thing; having these conversations. And doing what is best for the business.

I think, ultimately, whether it is on the playing field or in business, the really good bloke puts the team ahead of the individual. Always always. There must be no favouritism. Every decision that is made must be motivated 100 percent by what’s best for the team/the business rather than any individual in it. The fact that an individual comes a cropper because of that approach is not of itself unfair. It may be tough, unpleasant and disappointing but not unfair. It only becomes unfair when it comes as a complete surprise to the individual concerned because no hard conversation was had, no opportunity to get better was explored or no openness and honesty was applied.

That sense of oneness that is a feature of the very best teams is something to which the application of all of these qualities leads. And amongst that team, there is a sense that it’s leader, the really good bloke, has your back. The person that you are want to be in the trenches with. Because he, or she, will do anything and everything for the team. And that, in turn, leads to one final thing about the really good bloke: respect.

AUTHOR: Richard Martin, Partner | Eibhin Stapleton

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