How many leaders seek to become dispensable?

Further reflections on Rugby World Cup 2011

As a rule dictators are not great advocates of succession planning and refuse to contemplate a world without them at the top.  This blindness to accept change can come at a huge cost, as Gaddafi learnt only too late.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry stands out as wanting to become dispensable, as Paul Ackford wrote in The Telegraph on 29 October 2011.  The last paragraph contains an insightful observation that “the players going off message was proof that the journey was complete”.

The RWC2011 final between the All Blacks and France was a great spectacle, at least for those All Black supporters who were able to summon the courage to watch!  “Agonising” does not do the justice to the surge of emotions that many of us went through.  This is not a sports blog and aside from that, many eminent sports commentators have dissected every aspect of the game.  I want to draw some lessons on leadership and explore how they might be applied in a business context.

In both sport and business, it is always too easy to bathe in glory when all has gone well.  The true test of leadership is how the leader and team respond when things do not go well, or worse still when they go badly.  Twice before New Zealand has learnt the heart-wrenching lesson that a team that is weaker on paper can produce a match-winning performance when it counts.  At least having scraped through this Rugby World Cup match against France, we can recognise the painful lessons of past defeats with some demeanour.

Aside from a few rare cases, the coach can only prepare his or her team and has limited ability to directly influence the game itself.  This makes the planning and preparation even more important ad is in stark contrast to business, when the CEO can always “step in when things go wrong”.  Another way of looking of this is: “things go wrong when the CEO steps in”.  Few will be able to beat the CEO of Qantas in grounding the entire fleet without notice.  Saying sorry won’t win back customers or customer loyalty in a hurry.

Too often “leadership team” is an oxymoron with more following than leading and not much of a true team.  The leadership group of senior players, including the injured Dan Carter, does seem to have played an important role in helping the players to form their own team.

There are some important themes that stand out from Ackford’s article.  I would like to present them in a different order that draws on “The Art of Action”.  Firstly there was a clear intent that was understood by all.  This was not just “win the rugby world cup” but in Ackford’s word’s “a precise and shard understanding of what game to play, when to play it and against whom”.  There was also lots of communication between coaches and players to achieve clarity about how a game should be played.  High alignment then enables high autonomy within the guidelines of a particular game plan.  Older players encouraged the younger players and they all had their techniques to handle the intense stress.

Finally to the last paragraph and the seemingly strange observation about Henry making himself dispensable.  He wanted the players to work out their own ways of dealing with the intense pressure of a rugby world cup final.  Some of these players will be playing in four years and guiding some new and younger players.  The main lesson for business is that the time to step down may be when your senior managers have the confidence to make their own decisions and are not doing precisely what you expect.  Be inspired by Graham Henry, set an ambitious goal, form a talented and committed team and work with that team to achieve victory.  You can then stand aside with dignity and the respect of all stakeholders.  In Henry’s case this was the entire nation.

Simon Fawkes
Business to Markets Ltd

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