Though their governments and economies may rise and fall, countries have one lasting trump card: national pride is a potent force. A force strong enough to effectively close much of England yesterday afternoon, remove traffic from motorways and leave every checkout in my local Sainsbury’s completely queueless. Which is one reason – probably the reason – the French Minister of Sport was tasked by President Sarkozy to have what was presumably neither a quiet nor a soothing word with the national football team during a World Cup campaign marred by in-fighting and threats to ‘strike’ in a sense totally unconnected with goal scoring. ‘Sporting behaviour’ embraces more than a strictly athletic meaning: it also invokes respect, team play and a bit of basic decency.

Few sports rouse public emotions in the way that football does. And it might be a game of two halves, but I suspect most of those watching have drunk slightly more than that by full-time. One Northern Irish friend shocked me recently by pointing out that her street was so flag-bedecked at present that it was looking like ‘a Loyalist stronghold’, a resonance lost on someone raised in London but an indication of the ease with which a sense of proportion can disappear during moments of high tension – of which the recent week has shown us several, in South Africa and elsewhere.

In the fervent atmosphere of the World Cup, the French team were representing their nation to the world as visibly as, albeit more transiently than, the President does himself in a broader context. And as national representatives, it’s not just the lack of performance that matters; it’s also any lack of composure, dignity – or respect for the watching crowd. France ‘expects’, every bit as much as England does. Hence the words of French sports minister Roselyne Bachelot after the team threatened to strike because one player had been sent home for swearing at the coach:

We are taking note of the indignation of the French people and … calling for dignity and responsibility.”

(I’m quietly glad televisions haven’t added hearing and sensitivity to their glowing list of advanced features: so many of us have sworn at pub mega-screens over the last fortnight, almost the entirety of the drinking classes would have been ordered off the premises by now.)

Although gloating at French defeats is something of an English tradition, our own country’s progress hasn’t exactly been as white as the background of those omnipresent flags. Media coverage and public reaction have hardly helped a sense of proportion: one recent Sunday, every national paper illustrated its front cover with the same story and large image – apparently the most important event on the planet the day before was a man not quite catching a ball. One match later, and a perfect media storm was brewing.

Sport still harbours a tradition of applauding the taking part as well as the winning, although football is of course also big business (remember the beer sponsorship hoo-hah?). After their second match, our ‘heroes’ were neither meeting the bottom line (scoring goals and winning) or showing much enthusiasm either. (Although I confess business analogies wear thin: while virtual organisations may compile project teams from a network of associates, those on the ‘subs bench’ don’t get paid to train with their colleagues. Teamwork is a plausible metaphor, but the overmanning would be ruinously expensive for those of us who don’t earn enough to buy a Bentley a week. And as for the HR angle, well … as The HRD points out, ponder how many legal firms are getting free publicity writing legal advice on letting staff watch the matches and its implications for anything that breathes or has numbered sub-clauses. If we read all of those, it would take longer than watching the match, which surely defeats the point?)

The manager having previously banned the presence of WAGs and spoken of the immaturity and lack of focus of overpaid young men, the media (normally happy to plaster the same WAGs on their front pages) were in full cry. A national team that had in recent months performed modestly well had fallen foul of the contemporary curse where hoped for potential is mistaken for proven ability: they hadn’t won when we wanted them to. But something more began to emerge: we were being infected with ‘the French disease’ – dissent.

Traditionally, English football uses a model the press appear to have adopted in coverage of the Deepwater oil spill and the financial crisis: the man (it almost always is a man) in the most expensive suit is to blame. Capello’s £6m a year was starting to look as well-defended as the English goal-line, even if performance delivery was ultimately down to the 11 blokes on the field and not one on a bench. But it took one of the 11 (well ok, 30) to deliver the ball that led to one of the clearer business parallels: whistle-blowing is an activity that should be reserved for those with a tune that the world would learn from hearing. (Or, of course, for referees – a role business might perhaps contemplate incorporating.)

The uninterested will have stopped reading by now – well, it is Wimbledon too – but the rest of us have probably already heard Capello’s comment that John Terry’s performance at a press conference was ‘a big mistake’. True, if partly made – however politely – in the spirit of ‘I think you’ll find I’m actually the one in charge’. Capello’s rather better points were a) the reminder that no one individual is bigger than the company, the campaign or the mission, and b) that leadership includes not just a responsibility to listen but sometimes also a need to make it clear that the leader’s ears are fully-functioning and available. Asked about the mood of the team, he said:

Probably one or two are not happy but the majority are happy. For this reason it is no problem. One player is not so important compared to all the other players. The group is more important than one player. If somebody wants to speak with me, he can speak. I always tell people they can speak, but yesterday nobody spoke. We saw the [Algeria] game without any comments.”

There was also another lesson: that even if we might prefer to call it ‘feedback’, criticism is best-addressed in direct dialogue with those we have an issue with, not via third parties and certainly not via national and global media. Even current captains serve present managers, and should respect the larger team by addressing issues out of the public eye and ear. And if humility is one component of leadership, finding yourself as ex-captain doesn’t free you from any obligation to display it.

But it seems hubris can beset ‘not quite overall leaders’ far from the football field too. (Ex-) General McChrystal will probably not be the last man to learn this lesson the hard way, but his decision to speak highly critically of President Obama in an interview he not only gave but approved the final edited copy for with Rolling Stone magazine does not reflect well on his sense of proportion or judgement. As one US blogger has pointed out today, if nothing else it clearly breaches the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which includes the clause:

Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”

Our careers are best served by learning the skills of giving constructive, timely and appropriate feedback, not by giving interviews. If our working relationships are with those who do not agree with us, learning to influence and negotiate might bear more fruit (for us and, if we are right, them.)

If we have previously earned our positions through our skill and loyalty, the problem isn’t just that we do ourselves a disservice. Rather than getting the anticipated fruits of our request from the organisation, we may well oblige it to rid itself of us – and of the skills and service it had previously appreciated.

Back at the football, England’s next match is on Sunday evening. We can all stop worrying about worktime and just watch the match, cheering on our team. I’ll probably be watching, like with most matches, in the spirit of – hopefully – enjoying moments of inspiration from seeing what a group of people can achieve together. If my team loses, I’ll applaud the victors if they played better – and hope my team finds something to learn from them if they did. And, remembering that discretion has its place, I’m keeping quiet about who I’d like to see lift the Cup.

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