It is that time of year when groups of men gather from all corners of Europe and come together to represent their countries by putting their bodies on the line: yes, the 6 Nations is here again. This tournament provides some fascinating insights in to leadership every year: how do you motivate people to give their best in an environment where there is real risk to their health? What are the leadership lessons that can be used in everyday scenarios?
There was an interesting interview with Eddie Jones, the England coach, in The Times last weekend. Most of the article talks about his story and how he has dealt with adversity in his career. His response to the question “what is your most valuable experience as a rugby coach?” was instructive: “Raising my 23-year-old daughter.” He is certainly not the first to draw the parallel between leadership and parenting. Simon Sinek has a very popular video on TED, where he talks about parenting involving setting boundaries, encouraging your children, disciplining them when necessary and wanting them to have a better life and more success than you have. That is exactly what a leader wants for their team, too.
Jones also makes the valid point that you cannot be authoritarian and impose your will all the time as a leader or a parent. You should be more sympathetic and engage with your team and your children so they can make the right decisions for themselves.
It also talks about some of the cultural issues he has faced, particularly working with the Japanese national rugby team and encouraging them to take ownership of their own destiny. The success of that approach was demonstrated at the last World Cup, with the Japanese achieving a historic victory over South Africa.
With England, he took over when the players were at a very low ebb. They had just made history as the first host nation to be dumped out of the tournament at the group stages. With essentially the same squad, he took England to a Grand Slam the following year. So how did he do it?
He has made the team self-policing about their behaviour off the pitch. Contrast that with the approach being taken by the national football team after Wayne Rooney had a good evening with a wedding party after winning a match against Scotland: uproar and calls for an official code of conduct. Jones has nothing written down and discipline in the team has improved.
He is utterly focused on personal performance and players taking ownership of their fitness. There are many stories of him being very direct about his expectations and the results that he wants to see. Direct communication at the right time is sometimes needed to make sure there is no misunderstanding about the outcome required. He also leaves the method to achieve the results up to the individual, which is a good delegation technique.
He is not trying to teach the players how to play rugby. In the professional era, a good level of technical skill is a given. However, he is spending time teaching them how to be a team. Organisations underestimate how much effort this takes. And it is not a one-shot exercise: team building needs to be an ongoing activity otherwise the depth of relationships needed for a team to work well together will never be built.
He recognises that a one-size-fits-all style does not work. Every individual has different emotional needs and need a different approach to ensure their buy-in to the team and give their best on the field.
However, he doesn’t tolerate anything less than full commitment and as an unnamed member of the squad said: “that is as it should be.”
So the challenge for leaders in other organisations is: this approach is proven. How much of it are you doing on a daily basis?