Four lessons on leadership we can learn from Rugby Union

Pride comes before a fall

When the South African Springboks lined up for the anthems before taking on Japan at the Brighton Community Stadium, nobody thought for a moment that they were about to witness the biggest shock result in international history, not least me. The Springboks did not field their strongest team, and I was not alone in predicting a forty point win for the Boks. I even tweeted arrogantly the night before, making lighthearted reference to “the unthinkable”. A try in the fourth minute of extra time gave Japan victory.

Leaders should never take anything for granted, they should take care of the basics, and be aware than things can take a turn for the worse (even in the 84th minute!).

Don’t go with the flow

When the ANC, fresh from an overwhelming victory in the first-ever democratic elections in South Africa, they had the opportunity to rid the country of one of the symbols of the apartheid years – the springbok as the emblem of South African rugby. The easiest thing for Nelson Mandela would have been to go with the flow. He was enjoying national and international adulation. Yet he realised that he needed to reach out to the vanquished Afrikaners, even if it cost him support from his own party. His subsequent decision to attend the Rugby World Cup Final, wearing a Springbok rugby jersey with the number 6 (the number of the Bok captain, Francois Pienaar).

Leaders should think through each situation on its merit and reach out to created new alliances and to align and inspire people.

Trust your instincts and live with the consequences

imageWith the score 32-29 to the Springboks, with a minute remaining on the clock, Japan were awarded a penalty near to the South African line. Most captains would have taken the three points from the penalty and secured an historic draw. But the Japan captain made a decision, the outcome of which he could not know. The rest is history: a kick to the corner, wave after wave of attacks until they scored their historic try.

When leaders make decisions, they don’t have the advantage of hindsight. In the moment they won’t know what everyone else will know the following morning.

Leaders need courage, and they will need to accept the consequences of their decisions.

Make your own judgements – whatever others decide might not be right for you

A week after that historic (and for this South African traumatic) result, with minute to play, and the score 28-25 to Wales,England were pressing the Welsh line. Awarded a penalty, the England captain, Chris Robshaw, could have taken the three points needed for the draw that would keep England’s World Cup hopes alive. Conscious of the brave and successful decision made by the Japanese captain a week earlier, Robshaw opted for a kick to the corner and a throw in. The rest is history. Great defence by the Welsh forwards and Wales defeated England. (For my Welsh friend, I repeat those magical words “Wales defeated England”).

What other people do is interesting. So too is how they do it. But leaders need to display judgement, not merely copy decisions others have made.

In summary, pride comes before a fall, don’t go with the flow, trust your instincts, and make your own judgements. You will have to live with the consequences.


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