• 29 Jul 2015

    ‘Ubuntu’ – leadership lessons from the Head Coach of England Rugby, Stuart Lancaster

    As a passionate rugby fan and (very!) amateur player for many years, I have always been fascinated by the many comparisons made between rugby and business, and in particular the lessons we as business leaders can learn from our sporting counterparts.

    Recently, taking my fascination to the next level, I was fortunate enough to spend the afternoon in the company of England’s Head Coach Stuart Lancaster at lunch in central London and was given possibly the most poignant insight into leadership and team dynamics by a man that I consider to be an absolute authority on the matter.

    After 20 minutes of chatting with him about England’s intended rugby tactics and player picks for the up and coming World Cup (we all have our opinions, of course!), and showing him a personal letter from my four year old son, Harrison…

    … I was immediately taken aback by just how full of humility a man in his position was, and how sincerely passionate he is by what he does and the cause he represents. This set the scene perfectly for the 45 minutes to follow.

    I will never be able to do true justice to Stuart’s very unassuming, yet deeply inspiring presentation style, but I have tried to capture what I felt were the four key salient points from the afternoon, points that act as great reminders for us as business leaders on a journey of success.

    One: Have a plan – a long term, sustainable plan

    In England Rugby’s case it is simple:

    • To be the most respected team in world sport
    • To have continuous and consistent high performance
    • The have culture and identity running through the team

    Two: Be prepared for the good times and the bad times

    There will often be a significant price to pay to be the best in your field, so you need to be prepared for that and be willing to pay that price. Remember, to “man up and show leadership” as the difference between offering an opinion and making a decision is the difference between following a leader and being a leader.

    Three: Develop your credibility

    People have to believe in the messenger in order to believe in the message. Leaders on a rugby field need to demonstrate the following traits in order to get the buy in of their followers:

    • Honesty
    • Inspiring
    • Forward thinking
    • Technical excellence

    Four: Culture comes before performance

    Leaders must truly understand the culture they are trying to create. Spend more time thinking about culture and environment, then tactics and strategy, as this is what drives success.

    Think about the identity of the culture you have created.

    South Africa use a word call ‘Ubuntu’ which is all about how the impact you have on people around you is more important than the impact you have on yourself. In the lead up to the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 2007, a video was produced for the South African players interviewing hundreds of people around the country reminding them of the Ubuntu philosophy as they took to the field. ‘You represent me’ was the resounding message from Nelson Mandela through to an impoverished child in a Johannesburg township.

    Stuart Lancaster reminds his team about the real meaning of identity as an England rugby player – pride, our history, traditions, our legacy? What is our ultimate cause?

    What does it mean to be English, what does the ‘white shirt’ actually mean. “You don’t play for England, you represent England. You have the shirt, but do you have the character?”

    Stuart then went on to identify 14 top lessons in leadership he has picked up on his way:

    • Connect people together – connection creates energy
    • Don’t lose emotional energy – don’t focus on the negatives, just drive the agenda
    • Inspire players to work hard in between the main events
    • Get the players to find their own voice on and off the field
    • Challenge and strategy – build for the future whilst winning the here and now
    • Channel the pain of losing to drive the next performance
    • Don’t play with the fear of losing – play with the opportunity of winning
    • Ignore the sideshows, focus on the process – the score will take care of itself
    • Find time to emotionally recharge for the battles ahead as a leader
    • See the bigger picture and focus on the plan
    • Keep everyone in touch with where we are and where we are going
    • Earn the respect of the public – lose with grace, win with humility
    • Connect the pathways to the team – bring in the youngsters
    • It’s always the little things that matter – enjoy the moment when you can

    Ultimately, as Stuart concluded, you can only do your best and that is all anyone can ask of you, so understand yourself, trust your philosophy, learn your values, be consistent and work hard.

    The impact Stuart Lancaster has had on the England Rugby team to date, as was the impact he had on those of us lucky enough to be in his presence at lunch last week, clearly prove his concepts and leadership ideologies can work, as we hope it will for this year’s Rugby World Cup in England!

    And this concept of Ubuntu, of understanding the effect you have on those around you, is not only imperative as a business leader but is critical to bringing together individual talent to create a truly winning team.

    As leaders we should be asking ourselves and our players, who and what is it that we really represent?

    Oh, and Harrison got the nod from Stuart too!