One of the most striking features of Stuart Lancaster, England Rugby’s Head Coach, is his leadership. He is not the character of popular myth, an ex PE teacher cast fortunately into the role or the stand in caretaker manager keeping the seat warm for a big name. He has always been a leader, pure and simple, in whatever he does.
Sometimes leadership’s influence is unseen outside of the team environment, it often manifests itself in behaviour, it always defines a team. Leaders decide what’s important; what people care about; how they behave; what they believe to be right or wrong; the team philosophy and culture. These things matter, they are the issues that define a team and set the foundations for performance. More than anything, these factors define identity.
Identity influences everything. Character, distinctiveness, reputation, personality and the respect a team is held in. The identity a team holds deep within it’s collective mind is the most powerful driver of what is thought of them by their fans, the pundits and the opposition as they take the field; how they behave and the influence they exert through their character; the level of composure and skill they display in adversity and the beliefs and values that underpin their culture.
For example, before the 2011 World Cup the All Blacks were considered by many as ‘chokers.’ Their journey to the coveted title that year was hardly a procession and even TVNZ proclaimed them lucky winners. However, their identity changed after that win; they went from ‘Chokers’ to ‘Winners’. In the 2012 – 2013 season they went on a record 20 match unbeaten run which saw them add the Rugby Championship Trophy to their already overladen mantlepiece. The freedom in which they played and the quality of their rugby left fans all over the world open mouthed.
When they walked out onto the Twickenham turf on December 1st last year all anybody was talking about was that 20 game unbeaten run. Expectations of an England win were not dominating the headlines. What hadn’t been spotted, though, was how England were being prepared. Lancaster was very open in his belief that the cultural foundations for a successful team were in place and now winning is what they were about.
The losses to Australia and South Africa that preceded that game generated a storm of media criticism and still Lancaster was not deflected off course. Under pressure himself and with the decision making of his team and captain under fire he backed his players to express themselves on the pitch. He backed them to make decisions as you would back a ‘Winning Team’.
The crushing defeat of the All Blacks on that day was considered a shock by many. Toby Robson in Stuff.co.nz said;
It wasn’t a shock to anyone studying Stuart Lancaster’s leadership style. Hear what he said to Oliver Brown recently in the Daily Telegraph;
When you have a critical mass who want to go in a certain direction, any players not buying into the team ethic have a choice to make: either change your conduct or pay the price by not being selected. You go with the players who will be right for the culture. That is a prerequisite for me: select on character, not just talent … I guess my vision for the team extends over a longer period. I don’t tend to position it at the end of the Six Nations, or even the World Cup. The next level for us is to achieve consistency. You have your culture, you have your discipline, you have your understanding of how you are trying to play the game. Now we want to deliver the type of performances where we can be genuinely feared as opponents, whoever we play.
All very good, excellent in fact. But the true test of a leader is whether his team is following his lead. So I was taken by the interview of Tom Wood by Tom Fordyce on BBC sport. Speaking of the All Blacks victory, England forward Wood said;
While it was a huge day for us, something that endorsed everything we’re doing, we need to keep reproducing that form … There’s no point in winning that game if we come out and play badly against Scotland. All that good work will be undone, and people will quickly forget the All Blacks game, just as they forgot the South Africa game the week before.
This is a telling comment in the way it frames expectations and the impress Formula slant on the temporary fallout from the South Africa defeat. As he continued he revealed how the team identity is developing;
We want to get to the level where beating New Zealand like that isn’t such a big deal – where we do it regularly, and we do it in their back garden, not only in front of 80,000 of our own fans … Last year was largely focused on getting pride back in the shirt, showing passion and giving the supporters something to cheer about, not necessarily winning games … Now we want to be classed as a world-class team … We’re very confident in ourselves and we’ve got belief in what we’re doing. Without disrespecting any other team, our intention is to go out there and win it … Success for us would be winning everything. The end goal is the World Cup, but we’re not a team that’s happy to lose between now and 2015 as long as we win the World Cup.
Tom Wood is talking like this because he and the squad have absorbed the Lancaster leadership mantra, they are not happy to lose, they want to beat the best and do it regularly and they believe they can. They have developed a new identity. They see themselves as a ‘Winning Team’, a ‘World Class Team’.
Whether the world wide rugby community comes to agree is another matter and will depend on results. And to this end it’s important to note that in adversity players who believe they are part of a winning team will be more composed, more resilient and keep going to the end. This identity is worth points on the board.
Whether the Six Nations defines this England Team or even the 2015 RWC we cannot be sure. What is certain is they have the leadership to be the best they can possibly be. It would be a great story in itself for all to realise that the PE teacher was always a Leader. It would be an even better story for the PE Teacher to go on and become one of the most respected coaches in world sport.impress Inspiration Survey
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