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Where egos, I go

Nick Elsom

I just watched The Damned United again, which if you haven’t, is a truly good sports movie.


It focuses on the disastrous forty-four day reign of Brian Clough at Leeds United in 1974. Following Don Revie’s brutally successful 13 years presented a major challenge. And he launched the adventure by telling the players their achievements were worthless, and that he - only he - could make them true champions.


Despite the fact he had achieved an implausible promotion with Derby, and would go on to take Nottingham Forest to two European Cup wins, this was a ballsy stance. And it came from his allowing his ego to drive everything. We laugh at the chutzpah in quotes like “I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one” because we know now that he was uniquely talented. But then, when he was in the foothills of his journey, with enough success to have got the job but not nearly enough to look down on his new players, it was rather brave.


There were two things the movie script believes Brian Clough didn’t have when he took over at Leeds. And these, when combined, doomed it to failure. The first, as detailed above, was the self-awareness and empathy to engage the players. The second was not having his old friend and sidekick Peter Taylor alongside him. And both these  things can distil down to the same issue, the same fundamental problem:


He had ignored the power of Trust.


Trust is a strange beast. It takes a moment to create, a lifetime to build, and an instant to shatter. The trust between Peter Taylor and Brian Clough had been built over years of shared experience, adversity and success. It had perhaps built to the point were it was taken for granted and its value to the successful partnership was no longer felt. Whatever happened between them at that point, there’s little debating the loss to Clough on that first day he walked into Elland Road, and for the 43 days that followed. He had no-one he felt able to trust but himself.


As for the players, if the story of that first encounter is accurate, how could they possibly feel engaged and motivated when the man appointed to be their new manager sends a clear message that he doesn’t much trust them.


Leaving 1974 and football behind, this is an issue is of such importance that it’s worth being clear about. Ego in business - as in life - is important. We all have one. Sometimes those bigger, more dominating egos, the ones that drive change and bring people together, are priceless assets. 


But what when the need to earn and give trust is subsumed within a belief that only I know best, that only I can do this, you should recognise that there’s only one direction things are likely to go. Major changes require a consistent effort from an entire team, and that requires Trust above all else.