The Damned United: Leadership Lessons

Tom Hooper’s The Damned United (2009) dramatises Brian Clough‘s 44-day stint as Leeds United football coach. You don’t have to be an English football film to appreciate the film which is a cautionary lesson on leadership, set in the downtrodden, rainy Northern English landscape that has become a Screen Yorkshire aesthetic.

Clough (Michael Sheen) makes several classic mistakes which self-saboages his leadership. He accepts the job because of personal animus with his predecessor Don Reavey (Colm Meaney), whose team has used dirty tactics in games with Derby County, a third league team which Clough and assistant coach/talent scout Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) have taken into the first league. Clough’s aggressive leadership style alienates the Leeds players who still feel loyal to Reavey, and who undermine their new coach. Clough does not have a 100-day transition plan and improvises his training sessions. Nor does he brief the Leeds players on pre-game tactics, whereas Reavey compiled detailed dossiers, in advance, on Leeds’ competitors. Clough’s overconfidence and chutzpah becomes a liability to the Leeds board when he fails to deliver results, and he blows-up. Anyone who has been through an exit interview will empathise with Clough’s sad observation outside the boardroom, ‘every story ends with two words . . . the end.’

Peter Morgan’s script (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland) based on David Peace’s novel (The Red Riding Trilogy) contrasts Clough’s troubles with his earlier success with Derby County. A sub-narrative reveals how Taylor’s expertise was essential to Clough’s success, and how the assistant coach ‘grounded’ Clough’s all-consuming ambitions. The relationship frays when Clough miscalculates during a brinkmanship negotiation with Derby County’s board, which accepts Clough and Taylor’s resignation, despite them getting the club to the top of the English league. On reflection, The Leeds board suggests that their error was in the wrong hiring decision: they should have hired Clough and Taylor, rather than Clough alone. Clough’s blindspot was a lack of political savvy: as a manager he refused to negotiate with Derby County’s owner or to heed his advice, and to listen to the Leeds board.

The film’s epilogue shows Clough and Taylor’s later success with Nottingham Forest, which won the European Cup in 1979 and 1980.The Damned United alludes to a deeper reason why Clough failed at Leeds: the ‘situational fit’ of talent to strategic circumstances that may only become clear in retrospect. Clough was a gifted turnaround coach whose chutzpah was needed to energise and motivate teams. Leeds had hired Clough with a different aim, to sustain and build its high performance team. Clough was correct to see how money would redefine English football, but in this transitional period, managers did not yet have the power to out-negotiate boards and club owners.

Frost/Nixon (2008) & Negotiation Games

Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Frost/Nixon (2008) adopts a thriller format in contrast with the Melbourne Theatre Company’s stage production which I saw several months ago.  Salvatore Totino’s cinematography turns David Frost‘s interview into a claustrophobic tit for tat whilst editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill linger on the emotional aftermath of Richard Nixon‘s elicited, emotional self-disclosure.

For me the MTC’s version suffered from a first act which established the interview’s circumstances, obscured the dual track negotiations between Frost and Nixon’s advisers, and veered into comedy, before ratcheting up the second act.  Howard avoids this dilemma through taut pacing that has a semi-documentary feel heightened when the characters deliver their monologues straight to the camera.

The cast needs to be stellar for this ensemble film and it delivers.  Frank Langella’s Nixon is a self-tortured leader with feet of clay; I have to now revisit Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) for a comparison.  Michael Sheen’s Frost adopts a chutzpah mask which hides a risk-taking gambit to avoid career demise and the compromises made to financiers.  Kevin Bacon’s Jack Brennan is prepared to take the flak for Nixon.  Sam Rockwell’s James Reston Jr. evokes how research can become an all-consuming quest when your beliefs and passions are on the line, deftly counterpointed by Oliver Platt’s Bob Zelnick who zigs and zags between self-depracating humour and conscientious objector angst.  Matthew Macfayden’s John Birt updates the role he played in Spooks (aka MI5) as a nuanced political operator who must counterbalance Frost’s chutzpah and the resistance it creates for Reston Jr. and Zelnick with keeping the team together, and getting the interview planning, negotiations and logistics done.  Rebecca Hall’s Caroline Cushing and Toby Jones’ Swifty Lazar provide comic relief from the tension and function to advance the film’s plot points.  Langella gets the spotlight for his Nixon portrayal yet the rest of the cast are vital because the plot needs everyone to be a coherent whole.

Playwright and scriptwriter Peter Morgan‘s previous films have explored weighty themes: self-willed blindness to the dark side of charismatic leadership in The Last King of Scotland (2006) and leadership judgment during crisis-driven events in The Queen (2006).  Set after Watergate and Nixon’s presidential pardon, Frost/Nixon explores the commitment costs for a research group that sets out to achieve public justice and the ploys in a complex multi-party negotiation.  There’s far more beyond the heart-to-heart phone call between Nixon and Frost, and Nixon’s final self-disclosure, just as there was more to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) than Gordon Gecko’s ‘greed is good’ sound-bite.  All sides use psychological tactics to gain momentary bargaining advantages and to leverage power imbalances, from Swifty Lazar’s late night reply on Frost’s opening bid to Birt, Reston Jr. and Brennan’s interruptions of the interview taping at strategic points that are beneficial to their teams.  Frost opts to ‘lure the tiger from the mountain’ (36 Strategies) for Nixon to self-disclose, enraging Reston Jr. and Zelnick who want a front-on attack about Watergate and the Vietnam War.  Nixon uses sleight of mouth patterns to interrupt, stall and throw Frost off guard.  Birt is caught in a position akin to a consultant or line manager: responsible for logistics and having to persuade all parties to move forward.  Anyone who has had to raise money against the odds for a project will wince with familiarity at Frost’s desparate meetings with television network chiefs and advertising agencies.  It’s this pointillism which makes Frost/Nixon even richer than the interview’s climatic revelations and why the film will be perfect for an MBA class on mergers and acquisitions, negotiation and game theory.

Now all I need to see are the Frost/Nixon original interviews . . .