Gove v Shankly

Last weekend, Mr Gove was in the news again for clumsy attempts at humour during an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme. He apologised straight away and clearly had not meant to cause any offence. He labelled it ‘ill-judged’.

I’ve just finished the Tim Shipman book, ‘All Out War: The True Story of Brexit’, which charts, in intense detail, the various shenanigans that led up to the Brexit vote and beyond. An absorbing read, my sense was that the chief protagonist in the book was Mr Gove; he came across as stupendously clever, but hopelessly out of touch. At one point, a SPAD admiringly describes him as ‘an ideologue, who knows he is right.’  Together with his advisor, Dominic Cummings, Gove presents as someone who is so intelligent that it may be impossible for him to feel any emotional connection with the vast majority of the population he serves. Incidentally, Cummings bluntly refers to the merits of most people as ‘crap’, and appears to do so most of the time.

Over the course of the same weekend, I went to see the premiere of the documentary film ‘Shankly: Nature’s Fire’ with two of my sons. I wanted them to see a particular type of leadership, one that is born of loyalty, egalitarianism and passion. Above all, Mr Shankly just loved being with people; players, fans, staff, anyone who wanted to share a cup of tea with him. The Liverpool Philharmonic Hall was full, symptomatic of a feeling towards Shankly that is still emotionally charged, thirty-five years after his death.

You get the feeling that Shankly would never think of people being ‘crap’. He was a leader of people first, and maybe a football coach second.

I am aware that I shouldn’t be comparing these two men living in very different times, working in different professions, and dealing with different pressures.

But what they hell, I am doing. (And they’re both Scots, born 48 miles from each other).

For me, the comparison is an important one, for it brings me to how leadership carries through to impact and longevity. In my view, the ability to cement a long-term legacy is an important yardstick of leadership success. In his desire to ensure the public were entertained and ‘made happy’, Shankly began something which still endures at Liverpool now, and led to them winning five European Cups in the years that followed his retirement. All those people in the Philharmonic yesterday believed in the core values his leadership espoused.

On the other hand, Gove’s leadership appears to have been transient and rootless. I would love to meet him and discuss the famous ‘Knifing of Boris’ last year. He may say that he was being loyal to his principles, sticking to his values, and there may be some truth in that. But from afar, it looks like shifting tactics, a man who doesn’t understand how people work, who trusts his reading of ideas rather than his reading of people. He’d been working alongside Boris for months – surely he either trusted him or he didn’t? It’s almost as if his intelligence prevents him from seeing the bleeding obvious. I suspect Gove will never be trusted again.

There is a further important conclusion to my musings.

There was a melancholic ending to the film; for football has changed irrevocably. Shankly’s loyalty to his players, then overlooked, would now be seen as a weakness. Gove’s apparent disloyalty sits much more easily alongside today’s managerial plutocracy, where power is everything and people are nothing. As a fervent pro-European, I am ashamed to include the European Parliament within this broad definition – I’m afraid it’s everywhere.

Football has become big business and is big box-office. We can hark back to a golden age, but its astonishing rise has also brought many benefits.

But state education is not a private business and never should be. There is simply no place for narcissistic and power-crazed leaders in education, anecdotally a feature of many multi-academy trusts for example.

I wonder whether Shankly’s legacy may now find more resonance in the classroom, rather than in the changing room.

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