September 25, 2019

Creating on-field leaders

I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about performance culture. One of my reference points is the All Blacks who exemplify a self-regulating performance culture (which I discussed in “Why the All Blacks are the best in the world”).

There’s one dimension which I think underpins everything else – the strategy of devolved leadership. This was developed very early in Graham Henry’s tenure. The reality the coaching group faced was that the players didn’t do what the coaches told them to do, they didn’t stick to the game plan. Getting more obedient players wasn’t an option. Sometimes the game plan didn’t work because conditions on the field were different from conditions in the coaching room. As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.

The coaching group worked out they had to equip the players to make better decisions on the field – they had to hand leadership over to the players. Apparently, Wayne Smith was the one who could see how this would work and what a fundamental change it involved – and at one point he told Henry that if they wanted to go back to the old command and control system, he wouldn’t stay.

It wasn’t the only challenge Henry faced. Graham Henry (nicknamed “Ted” for reasons lost in the mists of time) was a highly successful coach who prided himself on his passionate and powerful team talks that fired everyone up. One great anecdote I’ve heard from several people was that captain Tana Umaga came up to Henry and said “Ted, who’s the team talk for?”.  Henry said “Well, T, they’re for you and the boys, get you fired up and focused”. Umaga said “I think they might be more for you Ted cos they don’t do anything for us”. Henry was devastated. This was his art, and it was worse than ineffective, it was irrelevant.

Today, the coaches lead the review on the Sunday, and then progressively hand responsibility over to a group of senior players. By Friday, responsibility is entirely in the hands of the players, led by the leadership team. Come game time on Saturday, the coaches confine themselves to quiet words of encouragement to the individual players.

That might have been a big change for the players, but it was world-changing for Henry and the coaches. Henry had been a school master and a highly successful coach, and his style was military: direct, clear and confident. And he had to let all that go so that his players could learn to lead.

It was a long and slow process – the players needed a lot of time to develop their skills, it didn’t always work and not everyone was on board. In 2007 they suffered their worst World Cup result, above all because of a failure of leadership on the field.

But like the best performers, they learned deep lessons from defeat. They redoubled their efforts and triumphed by the narrowest of margins four years later. And they did it by holding their nerve in the last twenty minutes when an entire country collectively lost their fingernails.

That philosophy of creating and sustaining great on-field leadership sets the benchmark for high performing organisations. It is a better more sustainable model than charismatic leadership or culture directives from the office of the Chief Executive.

Devolved leadership is not inverted, it is leadership shared. Coach Steve Hansen (Henry’s even more successful successor) is very much the leader: it is his choice to share that leadership with his other coaches and the players. If you look closely at high performing organisations in any sphere, you will find leadership shared throughout them which only happens through the conscious decision of the person at the top.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *