Xerxes: There will be no glory in your sacrifice. I will erase even the memory of Sparta from the histories! Every piece of Greek parchment shall be burned. Every Greek historian, and every scribe shall have their eyes pulled out, and their tongues cut from their mouths. Why, uttering the very name of Sparta, or Leonidas, will be punishable by death! The world will never know you existed at all!
King Leonidas: The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many, and before this battle was over, even a god-king can bleed
Zack Snyder, 300
When people talk of leadership, it is usually in exalted and frankly unrealistic terms. A true leader, we are conditioned to believe, is the type of heroically bearded, abdominally enhanced, deity-goading fellow that Zack Snyder turned Gerard Butler into for his movie, 300. Redoubtable, hulkingly muscular and with an enviable line in stirring patter, such mythological creatures embody an idyllic paradigm of what it means to be a leader, tossing away wry quips as they have a limb lopped off, while fighting insurmountable odds. The bar, then, may be set a tad high.
In reality, the traits of a good leader are far more prosaic. Empathy, setting the correct example, knowing how to encourage, cajole or gently rebuke, when appropriate -- these are the essential characteristics of an effective modern figurehead. In today's sanitised and cosseted society, folk do not take well to the booming commands of an old-fashioned alpha. We are all far too convinced of our own centrality to the elaborate pattern of the universe, too possessed of a gnawing ego, to be okay with the concept of blindly following anybody, no matter how hewn from granite their torso or how stirring their exhortations. We don't want the patriotic roar of Braveheart, we want the stammering affability of Bob Newhart.
The sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams, seemed to be on to something a mite more attainable when he said that "if your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." The former diplomat was tapping into the notion of leadership by example, which has become a familiar topic to fans of Liverpool Football Club over the last decade. When it comes to showing the way through his own efforts, Steven Gerrard has had few peers. The Liverpool captain has had more than a whiff of our mate from the battle of Thermopylae about him over the years, as he's dragged his charges through fierce battles by sheer force of will.
The merits of Gerrard as a leader of men have been analysed in painstaking depth in recent years and some, your scribbler amongst them, have even had the temerity to suggest that his time donning the armband has not always been the Roy of the Rovers cliché propagated in the British media. Sadly, with the Huyton man's summer departure looming, any further debate on the subject seems a little redundant, as Liverpool plan for a brave new post-Gerrard world.
Leading the troops into that era is Brendan Rodgers. His chosen general in the field, in the absence of the wounded legendary number 8, has been Jordan Henderson. The Sunderland native has run the full gamut of fan reactions over the course of his time at the club. Wary welcome gave way to howling derision and eventual grudging acceptance, as the hair product aficionado endured a torrid time from the more extreme elements of the fan base. Even a period of apparent managerial indifference did not derail his quiet determination and now Henderson finds himself an absolutely central element in the side and deemed the natural successor to Gerrard.
The character of the young man is remarkable. He didn't even seem to be overly impeded in his development by the cruel tauntings of the once Dark Lord of Old Trafford who made a completely rational and in no way idiotic observation about the England regular's running gait, in a pathetically veiled attempt to undermine the midfielder. Oh how we miss his constant barbs. Somehow, the cartoonishly egocentric preener at Stamford Bridge just isn't an adequate substitute bad guy. The Premier League moguls need to cast a proper villain soon.
Henderson, then, is made of the right stuff, it would appear (I'll stop the movie puns soon, I promise). Unbeaten in his 13 outings as captain, the perpetually motile death-stare specialist will never be found wanting in terms of his effort and, of late, he has added the kind of goals and assists that many had griped were absent from his game. Modesty and humility are, however, very much a part of this player's character and he has no hesitation in praising the considerable influence of his club captain and name-checking the others with leadership qualities in Brendan Rodgers' squad.
"Stevie’s the perfect captain really," Henderson averred. "He’s a leader on and off the field. He’s someone we all look up to. He always puts the team first. He’s very unselfish. When I became vice-captain, I tried to learn as much from him as I could. The thing I’ve probably learnt most from Stevie is the way he overcomes the disappointments. I think that defines you more than anything. I can relate to it. If I look back to my first season here, it wasn’t easy. But it made me stronger. I always think of losing the FA Cup (final to Chelsea) rather than winning the League Cup. Setbacks like that inspire you to want more - to progress and to win.
"Next season we’ll see what happens because it might not be me succeeding Stevie, it might be someone else," he continued modestly. "There are a lot of strong leaders in the dressing room. There are a lot of big characters in the team - down to earth humble people. Mama (Sakho), Emre (Can) and Skerts (Martin Skrtel) have developed a strong collective understanding. You can see their passion, they’re desperate to win, they give everything. Studge (Daniel Sturridge) is a big character. Lucas (Leiva) is too. I can only do the current job the best I can."
The most striking thing about Henderson these days is not the talent, which some of us never doubted. Nor is it the tireless effort he has always expended whilst donning the Liverbird. That, has unfairly become expected. No, what takes one aback is not only the maturity and calm demeanour of the man but also the intelligence with which he talks about the game. His Ken doll looks and constant grin off the field have lulled many into casting the number 14 as a typical nice-but-dim athlete. He is anything but. Witness his observations on how he can use his own experience to best fulfil his captain's role on the park
"When you play in different roles, your horizons broaden," mused the generously biceped dynamo. "You understand the game better. If you play in the middle of the park, you develop the mindset of players in other positions. If you’ve played on the right and are in the middle, you’re more likely to appreciate where the player on the right will be depending on where the ball is. It also means that you can encourage players in other positions to do the right thing. If you’ve been there yourself, your words tend to hold that bit more authority. In football now, I think you need to have the potential to play anywhere. Systems aren’t as rigid as they used to be and here at Liverpool ours involves a lot of movement. That helps the team to be a lot less predictable."
Ironically, contrary to the observations of the opening paragraphs on the shortcomings of modern man, if one was to find oneself opposed by an absurdly large horde of freakishly mutated warriors in a narrow pass, Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho would be quite the allies, one imagines, such is their warrior potential and capacity for inspirational heroism. Henderson is a more than worthy successor to a captain of such legendary status as Steven Gerrard, but as the midfield force of nature himself has pointed out, Brendan Rodgers will not lack for men of character in the squad he has built.