Ian Herbert writing in the Daily Mail said, “The old culture is obstinately hard to remove from coaches who lack the intelligence to adapt”. The context was the stories that had surfaced concerning former professional footballer Peter Beardsley who had been accused of ‘bullying’ in his coaching role at Newcastle United. Beardsley had been brought up in the harsh football culture of yesteryear where ‘bullying’ was the norm and the prevailing behaviour was not construed as such…and if it was, well you simply got on with things. It was simply part of what had to be endured in order to gain the respect (of senior professionals) and become part of the fabric of professional football at the time. The successful Liverpool team that Beardsley played in was renowned for the harsh treatment meted out to the younger professionals by the senior players in the squad. It was seen as a ‘rite of passage’ and necessary to see if they (the younger pros) ‘had what it took’ to make the grade. It was an inherent part of the team culture and as such, had to be endured if one was to ‘fit in’.

But times have changed.

What might have ‘worked’ and been acceptable then, is no longer acceptable today. This was something that Beardsley failed to grasp. In trying to prepare young professionals for their profession he drew on what had worked when he was in their position; he tried to imitate the conditions that generated his success and failed to recognise that both the game (well those who play the game) and context has changed.

It is a common mistake and one made by many leaders.

The need to recognise that ‘what got you here’ will ‘not get you to where you need to be’ is easier written (or said) than practised. Smart leaders continually evolve and they recognise that a fundamental part of contemporary leadership is to understand the changing context and adapt accordingly. This is seldom easy and may not be ‘liked’ but it is entirely necessary.

Evolutionary biology teaches us that adapting to changing circumstances requires knowing what to keep from the past that which will be helpful going forward; knowing what to discard – that which will no longer be helpful as we move forward and knowing what needs to be created in order to meet the changing circumstances.

Understanding what to keep, discard and create in times of change and uncertainty is a foundational block in building the capacity to adapt. This holds true at both a personal as well a corporate or collective level. Preparing others to live in the future will most certainly require adaptive mindsets and accompanying skillsets – something that Beardsley failed to appreciate. Times change and with that so do mindsets, values and behaviour. Some of this might not sit well with us but nonetheless, it needs to be understood, appreciated and embraced or suffer the consequences of becoming obsolete, out of touch or worse, as Peter Beardsley has found out to his cost.

It is sad for he was a tremendous player who often saw things on the football field that others couldn’t. He was a clever player with great skill and yet he was incapable of transferring that on-field versatility into his post-playing career scenario; one that is shaped by a different context.

It is a lesson for leaders everywhere.

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