Friday 15 November 2019

Selfless and brave garda Golden gives all of us a lesson in leadership

It was a week of elation and grief, where two very different types of heroes inspired all of us, says Brendan O'Connor

HORROR: Scene of shooting in the sleepy village of Omeath, Co Louth, where Garda Tony
Golden gave his life to protect Siobhan Phillips who was subjected to domestic violence
HORROR: Scene of shooting in the sleepy village of Omeath, Co Louth, where Garda Tony Golden gave his life to protect Siobhan Phillips who was subjected to domestic violence
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The thing that most of us cannot understand about the death of Garda Tony Golden is why he was in that position in the first place. Why did he end up unarmed at that house? Garda Golden clearly knew the potential for some kind of scene because he told Siobhan Phillips' father Sean to stay outside so as not to provoke the situation. Doubtless we will learn a lot more about why Garda Golden ended up at that house unarmed and without back up. Questions are being asked about resources, about manpower, about the level of knowledge the gardai south of the Border had about Adrian Crevan Mackin.

But that doesn't stop a lot of us from wondering why he went there. Because most of us wouldn't. Most of us, if we were a garda not earning a huge amount of money, on our own at the station because the only other garda was out on a call, would have decided it was more than our job was worth to go up to that house and risk any bit of unpleasantness.

In the absence of a colleague to discuss it with, we would have erred on that side of putting it off. Equally we don't know at this point if Tony Golden sought back up or discussed the matter with anyone else. But most of us know in our hearts we would have weaselled out of going there.

We know too we would have turned back when we saw Mackin's car. We would certainly have turned and ran when we heard shots. Garda Golden ran towards those shots. And doubtless, if he had lived, his heroism feted in life instead of death, he would have said what most people say when they do extraordinarily brave things in the heat of the moment.

He would have said, "I just did what anyone would have done". He would have said that he didn't even think before lunging. That is what heroes always say. They will often claim something along the lines that they were propelled by a force that was beyond rational thought.

And maybe it was instinct and the unconscious that propelled Tony Golden at that moment, a moment when, as Sean Phillips says, he "laid down his life for my daughter Siobhan, myself and my family". But nonetheless, most of us know that we would probably not have had those same instincts.

The extraordinary gathering of gardai in Blackrock, Co Louth, on Thursday mourned a fallen comrade no doubt, and were there to express brotherhood and sisterhood. But you get the feeling too that those 4,500 men and women were there to honour a fallen leader, a man who put his life on the line to do the right thing. In the way he conducted himself in his final moments, Tony Golden showed more leadership than many who are higher up and better paid in the force than he was.

Listen to what people who knew Tony Golden said about him. Former inspector Denis Henaghan said he was "diligent to a fault and always wanting to do the right thing. No way was he going to leave that girl wanting. Whatever he could do, he would do it. And no way would he leave until he was finished."

Garda Golden's brother Patrick said: "He always looked out for me and ensured I was never led astray. He would go out of his way to ensure I was safe. That was Tony's nature, as he treated all his family and friends in the same way."

Even allowing for the fact that people speak well of the dead, it is interesting that both these tributes mentioned Tony's attentiveness to making sure other people were OK, to bringing younger and weaker people along with him. It is the instinct of the true leader and the instinct that would ultimately lead to his death.

There has been a lot of mention too of Tony's modesty. Even the can of coke, the TV remote and the Drifter bar at his funeral spoke of a man who was not flashy, a man who maybe had little to prove.

And you could be tempted to think that this marked him out as someone who was not a leader of men.

Certainly it doesn't sound like Tony Golden was one of those brash, extrovert, expansive leaders, the kind of leadership that came into vogue in American corporate and political life after the success of Dale Carnegie. Leadership, for a while, came to be about being a good salesman, convincing people with words rather than actions. And to an extent, it is still that way.

But another form of leadership has crept in in recent years, emanating out of Silicon Valley among other places. This is the quiet leader, the leader who leads from behind, who doesn't talk too much about leading but often listens more.

This is a leader who doesn't galvanise his followers with rousing speeches. It is a leader who earns people's trust because they feel he would be a good man to go over the top of the trenches with, a good man to have in a tricky situation, a guy who is not a bullshitter, a guy who leads by doing, and who would not expect you to do anything he wouldn't do himself.

Tony Golden clearly led by example in his life, and while his skills may not have been the political ones that would propel you quickly up the ranks of the gardai, he was recognised belatedly on Thursday as a leader of men, when 4,500 of his followers turned out to quietly convey that this man inspired them, that this man represented the best about the job they do.

In a completely different way, and I hesitate even to mention him in the same context, the end of Paul O'Connell's international career last week told us something about leadership.

Contrast how O'Connell's career is ending with leaders in the political sphere. Look at the extraordinary testimonies we heard to O'Connell's leadership in the last week, many of them from men who we would consider great leaders themselves, such as Brian O'Driscoll. O'Connell is another example of a style of leadership that is all too uncommon in Irish politics and corporate life.

It was a quiet, unshowy leadership. He inspired by doing. And he brought others along with him.

Read Alan Quinlan's description of O'Connell's leadership style in the Irish Independent during the week: "The day I suffered from self-doubt he was there beside you. He'd challenge you. He wouldn't be afraid to have a cut off you, either but when he did, he'd do it in a way that somehow gave you belief. Those [dressing room] speeches did so much for my career. 'Have you the balls, have you the ability, have you the grit, have you the determination?' he'd ask.

"He'd test you. We saw a guy who was so passionate about the team, and it made me feel different. Absolutely it did. It made me want to run through a brick wall. After Paul's speech, there was no anxiety. No doubt."

Can there be any better description of leadership than a man who could take you from self doubt to wanting to run through a brick wall for him? And again, O'Connell's leadership was not about O'Connell and the limelight. It was selfless.

It was about bringing the others along, about seeing who was weakest and bringing them on, about checking who had self-doubt and helping them. It was also about other, more unsung things.

It was about quietly taking time to hang out with and befriend a sick teenager called Donal Walsh, calling to him or ringing whenever the opportunity arose, even on the eve of big matches. Donal Walsh regarded Paulie as a friend, not as a celebrity feeling sorry for a sick boy.

And how did Paul O'Connell's international career end? It ended in the trenches, taking chances, doing exactly what he expected everyone else to do, putting himself on the line. And Paul O'Connell's last game probably inspired this country more than any political or corporate leader has in decades.

We all know that there is a certain strain of corporate and political leadership in Ireland which is all about ass-covering.

It is a style of leadership that is the opposite to that of Tony Golden and Paul O'Connell. It is about the leader himself, and his grandiosity, and his survival. It is not about other people. And we almost expect it in political and corporate life now.

It is perhaps why people in this country are cynical about politics and business, though the leaders of course, would blame the media.

But perhaps these leaders should try for once to see beyond themselves and their needs, and their short-term survival.

Anyone who purports to be a leader has a lot to learn from the Tony Goldens and the Paul O'Connells of this world. But then again, maybe that kind of true leadership is not something that can be learnt. Maybe you need to be born with it.

And maybe the type of people who are born with the humility and selflessness that makes a true leader will never have the kind of skills you need to climb the greasy pole of political or corporate life. Which is a depressing thought.

Because it means that we will only get the leaders we deserve in sport, or in the rank and file of organisations like the gardai.

It almost makes you wonder if anyone who pushes themselves forward as a leader should automatically be disqualified.

Sunday Independent

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