4 Leadership Lessons from One of England Rugby’s Darkest Decades

It’s been almost a decade of underachievement on the field since England’s famous triumph Down-Under at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, yet it is in the boardroom where the real blame is to be found. Even the optimism surrounding England’s recent spirited Six Nations performance was threatened to be overshadowed by the flip-flopping over who should replace Martin Johnson as England manager.

Performances on the pitch have ultimately resulted in the RFU board opting to confirm interim coach Stuart Lancaster as the full-time boss, a decision considered by most pundits and fans to have been long overdue. What remains most concerning about the state of English rugby is not simply a lack of direction on the field but a lack of leadership at all levels of the game, questions which have still yet to be fully resolved.

Having a truly talented group of individuals in your company or players in your squad no doubt factors, but it takes more than just talent to create a world-class team. Leadership, be it of a business or a sports team, requires certain critical characteristics for success:

1. Clarity
Great leaders and teams share the common principle of clarity in everything they do, be it clarity of purpose, clarity of culture, clarity around individual as well as team performance and most importantly clarity around leadership.

Since Sir Clive Woodward’s departure as England Manager in 2004, arguably the biggest factor undermining success on the field has been a lack of clarity as to who really runs English rugby. At the heart of the issue lays the creation in 2006 of a new post of Director of Elite Rugby a position between the England team and the RFU board and filled by former international Rob Andrew who himself at times seems unable to conclusively describe his responsibilities.

Clear lines of communication are critical to decision making and running a business requires having the right cogs in the right place of the machine. Leaders within a team provide not only a clarity of purpose but also develop the culture of that organisation whilst the wrong person in the wrong role can be catastrophic.

2. Make world-class decisions
The decision to appoint Stuart Lancaster on a temporary contract until the end of the 2012 Six Nations was arguably the most glaring failure of the RFU board. Whilst performance on the pitch was increasingly positive, media coverage and speculation throughout the tournament surrounded the appointment of the next England coach, an unwelcome distraction from the objective of succeeding. The ongoing speculation even led to several high profile candidates, including world cup winning coach Jake White, withdrawing from the application process because of the protracted dithering on the part of the RFU.

Decisions should always be taken dependant on the requirement in terms of speed, agility and importance. Appointing a head coach for a single tournament whilst courting a world-class short-list of candidates was guaranteed to create uncertainty and instability and detract from the objectives and performance of the team.

In business a team looks to each other and senior managers for clarity and transparency in the decisions they make. Nothing risks the cohesion and unity of a team more than a failure to be decisive and fair in the decisions they make.

3. Trust and believe in each other
Teams have long been built around the concept that they are only as strong as their weakest link. In a business everyone must understand their role in ensuring the success of that business and the benefits that each member brings to the team.

Amongst the reasons for England’s decline and infamous off the field controversies during Martin Johnson’s tenure was a lack of team spirit, pride and respect. Many of the senior players in the Johnson era had played alongside the manager during his playing days and this according to the post-tournament inquiry led to a sense that some individuals became too relaxed and close in their relationship with the team boss.

Building a great team requires individuals who enjoy a deep degree of trust in one another. The trust that their colleagues are not just dedicated but also up to the task and critically where everyone in that team has the ability to lead at any given moment and the self-belief to never shy away from that responsibility.

4. Honesty drives better performance
Transparency and fairness are critical to a successful team but neither sport nor business are a democracy. The most successful teams are those where every individual has the right to give absolute feedback, both negative and positive and where the team builds and thrives on a culture of honesty.

Leaked internal RFU inquiries and stinging press coverage of the handling of several scandals at the 2011 World Cup led to a breakdown in trust amongst both the England team and the fans. In business your team are undoubtedly you greatest asset; lose their support and confidence and you risk undermining your business.

Where next for England Rugby?
There are encouraging signs at the start of the Lancaster reign that lessons on the field are being learned but can England’s fortunes be reversed without changes and real leadership from the top? The answer I’m afraid is that whilst short-term performances may peak and wane, dominance cannot be achieved without the RFU understanding it’s own failures and the need to develop the structures, systems and culture that supports leadership and success. Until then, the bureaucrats at the top will continue to hinder the development of the game.

About Dean Williams
Dean Williams is an acclaimed business coach and author of the book ‘Creating Grade A Business Relationships’. He works with blue chip companies and SMEs providing 121 executive coaching, team coaching, leadership seminars and alongside Olympic Gold Medalist Jason Gardener presents motivational speeches. He has been successful in helping suffering businesses by increasing their profitability and is a regular contributor to a range of business press including the Sunday Times.