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When Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager of Manchester United last May, I wrote this Saturday essay for the Irish Daily Mail about how Ferguson offered the near perfect role model for a modern political leader.  Some believe he has damaged his legacy a little, with the timing of his recent frank memoirs, but we all have our faults, especially in the frustration of retirement. Indeed, if the political leader he really most resembles is Margaret Thatcher- a comparison he would resist, as a lifelong Labour supporter – then there is the added consistency that, like her, he cannot help but foment mischief from the retirement zone and make life just a little uncomfortable for his hapless successor!

Saturday Essay – Daily Mail

Alex Ferguson is the ideal role model for political leaders

There is hardly a better role model for our political leaders than Alex Ferguson, the just retired manager of Manchester United. Driven by an utter sense of self belief, he inspired great loyalty in his followers, but crucially was not afraid to be unpopular, and even loathed, and took the hard decisions necessary to get things done.

Like him or loath him, the hard-bitten Scot, relentlessly chewing gum on the side lines, as he drove his team on to greater and greater glories, was an inspiring figure. We may not have liked his ‘everyone’s against us’ mentality, which he turned into an inspirational asset for his team, or his hounding of referees, but we respected his great drive and competitive spirit- even manipulation. Bluntly, we may not have liked him, but we respected him, and that’s the crucial thing. He was person we wanted to have on our side, managing our side.

And there are crucial lessons here for our political leaders. Notably, that such leadership is best carried out with utter self-conviction, and fearlessness, including being fearless about being unpopular. In fact, during an economic crisis, one is obliged to be ruthless, and follow the logic of what needs to be done. The public will squirm but they will thank you later. Look at Margaret Thatcher. She was controversial for her hard economic policies, and for taking on the trade unions, but she is now regarded as an icon.

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Unfortunately, we are living in an era where politicians want to be liked. They want to follow the mob, not lead them. They want to say that ‘none of what is happening is your fault, and you are entitled to all your existing benefits’, even though the State can’t afford it. And alas it is us, the public, who have created this culture. Thus, we are stuck with the politics of compromise, and have leaders who don’t want to ruffle too many feathers, and won’t take hard decisions. The short-term electoral cycle is paramount, as are continuous opinion polls. Ferguson wouldn’t have cared about such things. He was more interested in getting things done, and getting results. This is also the mark of a statesman, who thinks of the bigger picture, and the long view, as opposed to the next election.

In fairness, some of our politicians have rediscovered this tough quality after the years of clap happy, easy populism- but this is because they have the Troika breathing down their necks. They mightn’t be so tough on their own. Look at Joan Burton who has done great work tackling welfare fraud and overspending, an area that was a sacred cow for years. Burton is popular because people respect a tough taskmaster, making honest decisions. This is the Fergie quality. By contrast, Eamon Gilmore seems guilt ridden about every cut and hard decision, and thus creates a sense of public confusion and grievance.

If you’re going to be tough, do it with your chin out front and sell the message to the people convincingly. But we come from a culture of focus groups and smooth marketing focus, and of pulling back on hard decisions as soon as they create a public fuss. And yet the strange thing is that although the public professes to like such populism, deep down they actually yearn for tough leadership. How ironic that one of the great Fergie’s great fans, Bertie Ahern, was incapable of tough decisions and just bought votes with goodies- for which we are all paying.

Since then, we have had many lost opportunities. At the very start of the economic crisis, Brian Cowen told us that hard decisions would have to be made. But FF went soft on the first post-crash budget. People were ready for real pain, and it didn’t come. And such is human nature, they we are not inclined to be so ready the second time. That Government caved in on medical cards for the wealthy elderly, and gave a let off on pay for senior civil servants while cutting that of lower earners. Not the Fergie style at all.

Their successors were not much better. This Government should have used its overall majority immediately to make big decisions, instead of tinkering around the edges. The timid approach to tackling public sector reform and pay – a legacy of the social partnership model – was far too slow when urgent action was needed. And the Government set a poor example by continuously busting the salary cap for their own advisers. Do you think Alex Ferguson would have given in to such favouritism? Not likely.

Ferguson didn’t tolerate favourites and his man management is also something that our leaders could learn from. If a Minister is not pulling their weight or is a liability, he or she should be changed: simple. Don’t just keep on Mary Coughlan, as Cowen did, out of loyalty, or keep on James Reilly as Enda is doing, out of paralysis. And it’s not just the Ministers. Get the TDs to work a bit more, especially the new ones. Enda has already been ruthless in suppressing disparate voices on his backbenchers, but he needs to rein in Ministers who tend to deviate from the message on policy. There has be total unity in the message, and the team. This was the Ferguson rule. His other attribute was keeping the team fresh, and blooding new talent to replace those who were soon to be disposable.

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And on policy, there is a lot that a fearless Ferguson would tackle, as a political leader. He would have asked why the State is being overcharged billions on prescription drugs, and who’s going to stop it?  And he would have looked at the books and said, why have the amount of disability recipients jumped almost 40% since 2006. What’s going on here? Is it a racket, on some level? I want it sorted and I don’t care who it offends, he would have said.

In fairness to Kenny, he has some of the Ferguson characteristics. An equally early riser, he has brought great energy to the role and an intense focus. But he could learn to be much more. He could show greater ruthlessness when it’s required for the greater good, such as standing up to Europe on burning the bondholders. And he could use Ferguson’s great ability for building from a position of adversity, and make our siege mentality a virtue. A crisis is an opportunity after all and now is the time to challenge the sleepy status quo and the old consensus-driven way of doing things. This is what real leadership is all about.

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