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What the Rugby World Cup can Teach us about Leadership


With the upcoming Rugby World Cup nearly upon us, I’ve been thinking about what makes a good game. Often it comes down to great team work – with a strong leader at the helm.

Martin Johnson famously led England to glory at the 2003 Rugby World Cup and was aptly described as ‘leader of the pack’ in the Telegraph.

He led by example and showed an unwavering self-belief, which kept the side together through tense times.

But he also had followers – focusing on a common purpose. In his autobiography, he said that England had a ‘captain’ for every area of the game.  Everyone played to their own strengths, with the right people in the right roles. But they had a clear leader on the pitch – steering and guiding others to achieve.

I always remember seeing the towering frame of Martin Johnson at the heart of a rolling maul, steering the pack but always communicating and listening to the ref.

So, how do you encourage people to follow you? I believe there are three key aspects to effective leadership:


1. Set a clear direction:

It’s important to understand where you want to be and how to get there. As a leader you will need to set a clear vision that is meaningful to the team and organisation as a whole. It should be stretching, but everyone should believe it is achievable.  Our vision should be a motivating, guiding force for everything we do.


2. Align everyone around it:

Anyone who sets up a business has their personal values stamped all over it. It is important to understand your company culture before you recruit, so you can bring in the right people. Once people buy into your values you get discretionary effort – things just happen without asking.

And everyone should be able to clearly articulate how their everyday work contributes to the overall success of the business.  If you were to ask all your people today that question, what would they say? 

Are roles clearly defined and established? Are personal objectives set and agreed?  Does everyone know what is expected of them and how they contribute to success?


3. Act as a role model – every day:

It is important to lead by example. For you to get your team to perform at its best, you must perform at your best. People copy behaviours, not words.  If your words say one thing, but your behaviours say another, what message is that sending out?  It is important to reinforce every day, the goals and objectives of the business (what we are here to do) and the behaviours we strive for (how we do things).


Finally, you cannot be a leader without followers:

A lack of strong leadership can be detrimental to any company. But there is no leader without at least one follower. And there are no followers without engagement.

It is important to engage with people in order to inspire and motivate. Building a culture of leadership, where each individual has their responsibilities, is vital. Just like Johnson’s ‘captain’ for every area of the game.

Do your people feel listened to?  Do they feel like their opinions count? Do they have the opportunity to be at their best every day?

What do you know about your followers?  As described in a Harvard Business Review article, how many of your team are “isolates, bystanders, participants, activists, and diehards”?

The trick is to get your people actively engaged because that way you get discretionary effort.

We’re not all born great leaders. After all, Johnson was described as just an ‘ordinary’ man

But one key aspect of being an effective leader, as demonstrated by Johnson, is a strong desire to learn and improve in order to up your game.