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Former Dublin footballer and manager, Jim Gavin, talks about the tenets of leadership required for teams to perform at the highest level possible and how his military background helped him to manage the Dublin footballers to six GAA Senior All-Ireland titles.

One time, our cadet school football team were playing against Mary I, the teacher training college.

All my experience in cadet school up to that point was about roaring and shouting so, I thought that dressing room would be the same. Like we were preparing for war.

Then this giant of a man came in. His silhouette almost completely blocked the light in the doorway. We were all brought to attention for the presence of a senior officer.

He went around and shook each players hand and asked them their name. He asked where we were from, if we were enjoying our experience. He made a connection.

He said something to us that I’ll never forget and it’s something that I used with the Dublin Senior football team during my years as their manager. He said, “The greatest reward that you’ll ever get in life is the satisfaction of doing something well and doing it to the best of your ability”.

That man was Dermot Earley, one of the greatest leaders the Irish Defense Forces and the GAA ever had.

Jim Gavin, pictured with Leinster Rugby Senior Coach Stuart Lancaster and Ryder Cup-winning captain Paul McGinley at the launch of Leaders Lounge, an online leadership conference taking place on 3rd November. For more information or to reserve your place visit @INPHO Morgan Tracey

I grew up in Clondalkin in west Dublin. Both my parents are from west Clare and they moved to Dublin in the late 50s to this little village on the outskirts of Dublin, surrounded by green fields – and more importantly, beside a GAA pitch – on the banks of the Grand Canal.

It was a fantastic household for my three siblings and I. My parents worked hard to provide us a good way of life. They instilled a positive work ethic in us from an early age.

We lived quite close to Western Aerodrome. I regulate that air space now but back then that air space was a lot more flexible. I’d have viewed a lot of leisure aircraft flying up and down the Grand Canal.

Military aircraft would have passed too, heading toward Casement Aerodrome so I was aware of aviation from a young age. For a young boy from that part of town to have aspirations to become a pilot was probably considered a little bit ambitious at the time. But my mother gave me hope. That is a key part of every leader. As Napoleon said, ‘leaders give hope’.

In 1989, my parents drove me to the Curragh camp for cadet school. I was a floppy haired boy wearing my father’s suit who’d been a bit mollycoddled up to that point. It was an emotional moment.

Within 30 minutes of them leaving me there in the Military College, that floppy haired boy was the Full Metal Jacket skinhead.

It was a tough experience. They break you down to build you back up again. At 18 years old, you’re brought to a firing range with a rifle and ammunition and taught to shoot at a human silhouette. Essentially, you’re being taught how to kill.

I’ve nothing but good things to say about my time in the military. I learned so much from them and they looked after me. I learned a lot about purposeful leadership.

On the right shoulder of my military uniform I wore a badge that said, ‘an ród seo romham’ taken from a poem by Padraig Pearse. Roughly translated, it means the ‘Road Ahead’  – always looking to the future.  As a leader, your job is to empower people to perform to their absolute best and help them move forward with purpose.

With the Dublin footballers, we weren’t getting paid, so that wasn’t ever a motivation. The motivation was to serve our county. That was our higher purpose.

Jim Gavin in action for Dublin during the Leinster Football Semi-Final 2/7/2000 ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

I played with Round Towers GAA club when I was younger, and my Dad was my first coach. He would have me out practicing my skills every day. Little and often.

I joined the senior panel in 1992 and I played for Dublin for 10 years. In my first three years, I’d won a National League, three Leinster titles and an All-Ireland. At 24 years of age, I thought life was great. I thought it would last forever.

As Daniel Gilman said, “Humans mistakenly think they’re finished.”

Between 1995 and 2011 Dublin didn’t even contest an All-Ireland title. So, when I took over in 2012, those memories were certainly front and foremost to my mind.

That said, I never had to mention winning in any dressing room that I was involved in. Ever. And I’ve been involved in nine All-Ireland winning dressing rooms between Under 21s and Senior.

It’s more important to me that the players understand that we were never the finished product. In that way, you build resilience. When we reflect on a match, we always look at the opportunities for growth. What was our current reality? Never lose faith, but where can we improve? That continuum of growth builds resilience. Failure is only when you give up.

Human performance has always fascinated me. Why people behave and perform in certain ways. Everyone is different. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s what it is to be human.

The responsibility of leaders is to seek out the greatness in people and put a spotlight on it and draw it out. It’s the responsibility of leaders to manage the potential of the team.

Some people might have looked at my teams and thought they were like robots in how they perform. But that’s far from it. My role was to facilitate the creation of an environment and culture combined with their values and their efforts that would allow them to perform to their own highest standard, to allow them to express themselves on the field of play.

You don’t always rise to the level of expectations; you fall to the level of training you put in. You adhere to the process of performance. You give people constraints, but you also give them the support and the autonomy, the responsibility and your trust to allow them to express themselves within the framework of the system.

I’ve never seen the perfect meeting. I’ve never seen the perfect flight. I’ve never seen the perfect match. It’s like infinity, it’s just beyond the horizon. But what I have seen is, high levels of performance and that’s what you’re always aspiring to do. The result looks after itself.

Dublin’s manager Jim Gavin with Philly McMahon after the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin 2/9/2018 ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Preparation is nine tenths of performance. When I fly the airbus A320, I do my best to plan my journey from my departure to my destination but there are no guarantees that we’ll get there. There could be mechanical issues, weather problems, airport closures or any other black swan event could interfere with the plan.

But when you’re prepared, you’re equipped to handle these things in an appropriate way.

If an aircraft loses pressure above 30,000ft  you have about 30 seconds of ‘useful consciousness’ to do as the instructions say, “Pull down on the mask, place it over your nose and mouth, and only then assist other around you.” On a passengers jet aircraft the exhaust temperature from the engine is typically 850 degrees Celsius and it’s a metre away from a few tons of fuel contained in the wing tanks. It’s a very hostile environment to operate in but it’s all taken as normal. As routine. Because the preparation has been done, the lessons have been learned and the mindset has grown to make civil aviation a safe experience.

To face all eventualities, you need to learn to be present.

Standing over a ball in Croke Park in front of 82,000 people you can’t be anchored in the past and thinking about the last point you missed. That will distract you from the present moment.

Just as I need to be present on the sideline. I can’t be thinking, “if we lose this game, we’ve lost 5-in-a-row.” I’m watching every passage of play. I’m scanning the battlefield of the game. I observe. I’m making a decision. I action it. I test it. And I repeat that cycle.

My role wasn’t to be a fan. My role was to be their manager; to try to make the best decisions to enable those players be the best that they can be, and to point and propel them towards that higher purpose that was more enduring than themselves.



September 2020.

Jim Gavin will be part of the Leaders Lounge virtual event taking place on 3rd November 2020 where he’ll join former Ryder Cup Captain, Paul McGinley and Leinster Rugby Senior Coach, Stuart Lancaster as they provide invaluable insight into the tenets of leadership and inspiring high performance.

This inaugural online event has been designed for CEO’s, Management Professionals, Business Executives, and those in wider leadership/coaching positions. For more information or to reserve your place visit

If you enjoyed Jim’s piece you might like to read Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s – “Embrace The Change“.

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