Alpha Males And Egos At Celtic, And How The Whole Club Is Coming Together.

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A couple of years back, I got into audiobooks in a big way. They’re a genuine pleasure especially with a good narrator. The book I’m listening to right now Is Anthony Seldon’s “Johnson At 10” about the disgraced former Prime Minister and his time in Downing Street.

It’s an excellent story, brilliantly told, and although most of the facts are pretty well known Seldon has a way of providing new insights into the events that took place.

One of the key insights come early, where he compares Johnson’s style of government to that of his predecessors.

His argument is that Johnson was a weak Prime Minister precisely because he tried to present himself as a strong one. He therefore kept other powerful figures out of the cabinet or gave them minor roles rather than major offices of state.

This, Seldon argues, was a key mistake, because good leaders recognise the need to delegate and grant autonomy to other smart people in order to make the whole machine function in the best possible way.

Johnson’s attempt to hoard power and control actually made his government weaker overall … and so a year after winning a landslide election he hadn’t accomplished a single major goal, because none of his secretaries of state was strong enough to put his or her own ideas in place, which would have produced much better results.

Celtic used to be run like that, and we’re better off for that having changed.

Following yesterday’s press conference with the manager, I found that I was increasingly excited about the campaign ahead, and when I am excited about the club I want to talk about it and debate the issues. Which is why it was such a pleasure to be invited onto Graham Spiers podcast, alongside Paul Brennan, to discuss the appointment.

There was a key moment where Paul talked about how filled with egos and “alpha males” the game is, and it has probably always been that way. His point was in the context of Celtic, and how Rodgers, Lawwell and Desmond are obvious alpha males and these guys do not usually back down or change their tune. But something has changed at Celtic, and that much is obvious.

These alphas have put aside their differences to get the club moving forward.

That alone is an exceptional thing and we should be grateful and glad that these three men have done that, and have shown a commitment to working through whatever issues there are.

But the truly intriguing point Paul made – and which I think merits discussion here – was when he pointed out that Michael Nicholson is not the textbook alpha male, but an intellectual, low-key guy … and you know what? I think that’s why he’s effective.

This club now has proper lines of demarcation.

It now has a proper separation between where the influence of one man ends and another man’s power begins.

Rodgers is separated from Lawwell by at least two layers; the CEO and the football board. As a non-executive chairman, Peter Lawwell no longer involves himself in our day-to-day business.

And of course the third alpha male, Desmond, is over in Ireland and doesn’t dirty his hands with the running of the club anyway and leaves that to the men in charge, of whom Michael Nicholson is now the main man.

To be honest, I was dead set against his appointment because I thought there was a danger that Lawwell would operate him like a puppet … it has not been the case. Nicholson might not be an alpha, but he has very clearly drawn boundaries and not only does he not cross them into other areas, but it’s clear he won’t let anyone else do so.

When Brendan Rodgers had to be won over, it was Nicholson and Chris McKay who went over there to talk through the new structure of the club with him. Rodgers consulted Mark Lawwell to discuss the way the scouting department works. But it was clear that Lawwell Jnr. has his own specific role and does not cross those lines either.

So I have confidence that this system works, and it is incredible to me that the guy who seems to hold it all together is the one with the least ego about it, and who does not feel the need to be some kind of showy front-man. Nicholson, in short, has been an outstanding appointment and his effectiveness comes from not being like those three other men.

He has no problem letting them have the limelight within their own spheres of influence. He is a proper managerial leader. He delegates. He trusts the people around him. He does not do more than he’s able.

During the Roman empire, one man ruled in the city itself … but if you were in the provinces the guy you paid your taxes to wasn’t the emperor but the proconsul, appointed by the emperor to rule in his name. That’s how you build and grow power … by letting go of it, and letting other people get on with the hard graft.

It’s the lesson Johnson never learned, and never will. It’s the lesson Lawwell didn’t get either.

But Michael Nicholson completely understands that and acts accordingly, and it’s his presence at the centre of the club which has provided us with our current stability.

He knows, for example, that Lawwell is the perfect guy for playing the role of global ambassador; his political nous and his relationships with key organisations like UEFA and the European Club Association are critical, and as chairman he is free to pursue those goals on that stage. And this is useful because I always thought that one of the reasons that there was dysfunction at Celtic was that Lawwell simply took on too much responsibility.

Back when he was CEO he was serving on both of those European football bodies.

He was also doing a lot of unheralded work on the commercial side with the SFA and the SPFL.

He took turns alternating between their executive boards.

That was way more than one guy, who was also, of course, running everything at Celtic at the same time, should ever have tried to do.

Now the separation of responsibilities is clear; Chris McKay sits on the SFA and SPFL boards, which frees up Lawwell to advance our cases in Europe and Nicholson runs the shop; it’s a much better system and it puts our influencers where they belong. It does not dilute Celtic’s power at any level; in fact, I’d say that it enhances it.

All this has been happening behind the scenes.

It has all slotted into place unheralded, without fanfare.

An example of how well it works was found not that long ago, and this is a good time to point out that I owe Lawwell an apology for the piece I wrote on his presence in Turkey for the Champions League Final. That was neither a junket nor a trip to interview a managerial candidate, and it wasn’t a chance to hobnob with the Dubai jet-set either.

In fact, Peter Lawwell was there on serious business, for a meeting between UEFA stakeholders and the top guys at the ECA … so much for the idiotic claims made by Gary Keown about us being a laughing stock and an irrelevance at the top table.

But what really makes this pertinent and most encouraging is that whilst Lawwell was dealing with that, Nicholson and McKay were moving forward with the Rodgers appointment and putting the key pieces of the jigsaw in place.

Under Lawwell, those tasks would have been worked on separately and, as a consequence, progressed much more slowly. Nicholson knows how to deploy the resources of Celtic in a more strategic way … and by God it works.

The most obvious ways in which it succeeds are in how it lets the football department run itself.

Rodgers, like the proconsuls of Rome – or like a good minister of state – has total control over the area in which he operates. He has to answer, of course he does, to the man at the top … but in his day to day running, he has all the power he needs.

His budget is set elsewhere, of course, but he can deploy it as he sees fit. The resources of the football department, including the head of scouting, are his to utilise in the manner of his choosing. That whole area of the club works according to his design … the CEO’s role is limited to providing Rodgers with the cash and the resources to make it all work.

And of course, every club needs a front-man, a guy to deal with the press, a guy to act as the showman, a guy who becomes identified with every aspect of the operation so that when you think about Celtic he is the first person who comes to mind.

Ange Postecoglou was exceptional in that role, and it’s to the credit of Celtic that they’ve appointed a guy with that gravitas, recognising that this job now requires more than just talent as a boss … the manager is the public face of Celtic, and Nicholson sees no need to steal any of that spotlight.

Paul Brennan was right; in a game full of egos and alpha males – Hell, in a world full of leaders who think strength is found in pulling all power towards them – it is gratifying that the guy who least fits that template is the one who is running the show at Parkhead.

As long as the lines of responsibility are clear, and everyone respects the job they have to do and continues to do it … you know what? I think this is going to work, and that Rodgers could very well be here for every one of those three years and perhaps beyond.

We are in a better place than we’ve been for years, and we’re building on foundations that are stronger than they’ve ever been before.

I am more than optimistic now.

I cannot wait for the next campaign to get underway. It is going to be a beauty.

The Graham Spiers podcast can be found at Press Box hosted by Graham Spiers

It is well worth the time and attention of every Scottish football fan, and in terms of our own club he’s done some exceptional interviews, which no fan should miss.

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  • Captain Swing says:

    Power devolved is power retained and all that.

    When the ‘Terry Munro’ season was engulfed in flames and the Lennon era crashing down around us, Dermot Desmond was reported to have called in management consultants. Expensive ones. No report of their findings was ever made public, but I suspect we are seeing the result of their work now.

  • Bob (original) says:

    For all the good things Lawwell did – and the obscene amount of money he received –

    for me, his copy book was forever blotted when he stood up at the AGM,

    and lied [allegedly] to the shareholders & support about

    “not seeing the 5 Way Agreement”.

    Would be much happier if Lawwell remained in the shadows,

    and didn’t interact with the media – at all.

  • Jackson says:

    All good James
    Apart from being pleased with Brendan as manager…. I await your piece on the the BBC. Not before time being banned yesterday…. That prat Tom English it seems was the cause, I hope Celtic bans them for good along with the Daily Ragord

  • Rionsa says:

    That was a fascinating read. The whole subject matter of power and how it is wielded in a bite sized chun, I loved it.

    There are those out there, Celtic fans among them, who wouldn’t have been able to piece that all together. So what Dermot Desmond has clearly done is turned the senior management / board level authority into a proper meritocracy. And to think not that long ago we were worried about it being a pension fund for Lawwell and his cronies. It’s anything but. Lawwell is a seriously talented man but a control freak. But rather getting shot, Desmond has tweaked it to get the engine running more efficiently.

    Bravo for a fantastic article. The Johnson analogy was superb.

  • Johnno says:

    A football club is a business and has to be ran accordingly, yet for the supporters it means far more than that.
    So the biggest decision making within that business has to come from the top and has to be filtered down throughout that whole business for it all to run smoothly.
    Now, no one within the business is actually bigger than the business itself, no matter how much power they hold within it.
    This applies even moreso, when that business is called Celtic FC, especially with the amount of emotion that is bought into from the supporters.

    We have waited way to long for certain individuals within the business side of the club, to all pull together and keeping us together to all march in the same direction. This has been accomplished over the past couple of seasons and no reason that I can see at present, for that not to continue.
    Of course decisions will be made that won’t be to everyone’s liking, and the return of lawwell was one I was totally against, and at a far higher level than the return of Rodgers ever caused myself.
    Yet we still haven’t seen any reason yet for a concern to be raised, even if I doubt I’ll ever feel total confidence within the man.
    You could claim the same about Rodgers also, yet I feel a total different feeling this time around with a unity within the board that actually makes us far stronger as it will work it’s way down throughout the business of the club and the unity within the support hopefully will follow suit, and see no reason as to why that can’t be continued into the future within an ever changing footballing world.
    Everybody has a role to play within this business of Celtic FC and as long as everyone within the business is playing there part together, then our business will hopefully continue to grow and remain as “Business as usual” within Scottish football and beyond

  • king murdy says:

    excellent piece james….HAIL HAIL

  • Pan says:

    Hopefully this is a humble lesson for you James not to write criticising articles on appointments when you know nothing about the individuals like you did with Lawwell Jr and Nicholson.

  • Fat mike says:

    Fair play james, thoroughly enjoyed that for a listen, looking forward to you gloating when u reconvene in six months time when beales been sacked and the most of the gumtree galacticos are on the treatment table

  • Fat mike says:

    I also thought flanking brendan with lawell and nicholson was a brilliant move, gave the ego his chance to introduce everything then let the brains behind the operation do the talking.. sat like a neutered dog by the end

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