The Unofficial Partner column: The Why problem

Richard Gillis on the mistakes we keep making, and our desperate desire for a narrative.

The Unofficial Partner column: The Why problem

I keep making the same mistake, over and over again, and my only consolation is that you make it, too, just as often.

It’s a mistake that is embedded in to the way we talk about business and politics but sport’s profile amplifies it to a whole new audience.

It’s one I first noticed 15 years ago, when working as a sports reporter, and since then I’ve started seeing it everywhere. It’s widespread throughout business and political reporting but it’s not only journalists who do it: academics, TV pundits, business gurus and best-selling leadership writers do it every day, sometimes by accident, but more often willingly, knowingly, enthusiastically. Shareholders of global corporations are guilty, as are voters when electing their presidents and prime ministers.


Who? What? Where? When? Why? These are the basic questions of journalism and the basis of the humble match report, still the prevalent form of sportswriting.

The first four questions require factual answers.

Tottenham Hotspur beat Arsenal 2-0 in the Premier League at White Hart Lane on Sunday 30th April.

But what about that last W: the why?

Why did Spurs beat Arsenal?

That’s a tough one, with a long list of complicated answers that might include the relative abilities of the two sets of players, their form or confidence on a particular day and, of course, luck – that most underrated of sporting qualities.

Why did Leicester City win the Premier League?

Why did Apple make US$18 billion of profit over the last three months?

Why did the British economy grow by 1.8 per cent last year?

Why have I lost my job?

These are complex questions that resist simple, headline-based answers.

They’re stories that are neither easy to write nor satisfying to read, because cause and effect are not easily aligned.

And it’s here that the mistake is made: the fundamental attribution error.

Faced with the why problem, we elevate the role of the leader above all the other possible explanations for success and failure.

Why did Spurs beat Arsenal? The answer is leadership. More specifically, Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino ‘outmanaged’ his counterpart, Arsène Wenger. This takes a difficult, messy reality and renders it simple.

Every day, the media’s coverage of sport is selling leadership as the answer to life’s problems.

Faced with the job of explaining sports results, or share price fluctuations, or sales spikes, we focus on the actions, decisions and behaviour of the person in charge when winning happens.

It’s a story that makes sense and, better still, it doesn’t just report the facts, it seems to explain them. Journalists do this because they know that real life rarely makes a great story.

Most of the time the details don’t add up, or they conflict with each other.

So we have great opening scenes that don’t go anywhere, or perfect endings, but no easy solution to help get us there.

When this happens, we tinker with reality because readers want to hear a good story more than they want to hear the truth.

A more truthful explanation of why Spurs beat Arsenal would be harder to digest and be a less satisfying story.

It would have good bits that don’t go anywhere and endings without clear causes.

Just the way we now talk about football shows how wedded to the attribution error we’ve become.

A review of the papers on any given day backs this up:

‘Guardiola outwits Mourinho in the Manchester derby’

‘Ranieri wins the Premier League for Leicester’

‘Arsène Wenger has lost his way and must go’

And so on.

The most famous people in the sport don’t play, they prowl the sidelines in expensive suits, gesticulating wildly, externalising every emotion, and generally leading before our very eyes.

To most people a football manager is what a leader looks and sounds like: he’s white, male and autocratic, with a monopoly on the higher skills of creativity and decision-making.

Players are mere passive recipients of instruction, pawns on a chess board, data points on an iPad, moved around the pitch by an all-seeing god-like figure in the dugout.

It’s a story that encourages sports fans, and shareholders and voters to demand more than traditional management qualities of diligence, hard work and excellence… they want charisma, stardust and hope.

It’s no surprise that a generation of sports managers and coaches have been welcomed into a leadership industry that’s grown sharply and is now valued at around US$50 billion.

But our obsession with leadership has led to a paradox.

The financial rewards for being one are huge, despite the fact that the public’s trust in our leaders has never been lower.

Right across the media, we have created a cult of the superstar coach, CEO, party leader and president.

And that’s a mistake we may all end up paying for.

Richard Gillis is the author of The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport’s Great Leadership Delusion. Follow him on Twitter @RichardGillis1