Coalition lessons from the British Lions

Coalitions are hot news. There's the UK merger of Orange and T-Mobile. But more importantly, we have our first coalition government in 65 years, a "joint venture" between the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, and the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg. Some observers say this coalition is doomed. After
all, two weeks ago Cameron and Clegg were slugging it out in TV debates.
Now they're Prime Minister and Deputy PM. And business research
does show that over 1/2 of mergers & acquisition deals fail.

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Well, I have an unusual source of inspiration on how to make a political or business coalition work: The
British Lions rugby team

Once every four years England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales stop kicking the hell out of each other on the rugby field. The best players from the four countries come together to tour and play against the Southern Hemisphere, alternating between New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. An amazing 40,000 fervent fans travel to follow the team.

This group of ex-enemies have only 5 weeks to meet, train and take on one of the best teams in the world.  It's almost impossible to win. But in 1997 win the Lions did against South Africa, 2 games to 1. What can leaders like Cameron and Clegg learn from the Lions? What are their chances of applying each of these principles?


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1. Start with visionary leadership
: The 97 Lions had incredible leadership from a double-act. Ian McGeechan was the master tactician and strategist. Jim Telfer was the tough, no-nonsense motivator. McGeechan focused on the creative back play, Telfer with the forwards. They were complementary. They worked as one. They were incredibly motivating.

=> Cameron and Clegg has the potential to be a powerful double act. They are both young, energetic and charismatic. They now need to find complementary roles: 7/10

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Screen shot 2010-05-20 at 08.11.12 2. Unite against a common enemy
: The key to the 97 Lions winning was being externally focused against a common enemy: the Springboks. Other tours were less successful as the team looked inwards, and had internal squabbles.

=> This should be easy: the common enemy is the Labour party, and the problems they have left Cameron and Clegg to sort out: 9/10

3. Use a single name and identity: the Lions have an advantage in their "off-the-shelf" identity with over 100 years of history. New coalitions need to create a single identity. Orange and T-Mobile in the UK recently showed how not to do this, by calling their newly merged company "Everything, Everywhere". You need something more catchy, memorable and inspiring.

=> This is a tougher one to crack. You need a name with three syllables. And one both parties can buy. The "Lib Cons"?: 5/10

4. Pick your best team: there is an alchemy in creating a winning
Lions team, blending the best players from the four home nations. Importantly for the Lib Cons, the Lions did not have equal representation from the four home nations, with 10 out of 15 players from England. In the same way, the Conservatives have more cabinet ministers than the Liberals. But some of the "minority" players in the Lions team were stars, such as Keith Woods of Ireland, and Tom Smith of Scotland.

=> The Liberals have some of their key players in the cabinet, and they should have a chance to shine: 7/10

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5. Invest time in team building: the Lions started their time together by going off for a weekend of team building, to bond and get to know each other, and to create a set of team values and code of behaviour. This proved to be vital when it came to crunch games. Another aspect of the tour is players sharing rooms, to bond with colleagues from other home nations.

=> The Lib Cons have had their first cabinet meeting. But they need to spend time together away from the cameras to create team spirit, which they don't seem to have done yet: 5/10

6. Create your playing style: the other bit of magic with the team is creating a playing style that is unique, and different from either of the coalition teams. 

=> On paper the Lib Cons could be the team to create a form of "caring capitalism", which is the best of both parties: 7/10

TOTAL SCORE for LIB CONS: 40 out of 60

In conclusion, a merger can work if the leaders invest time and energy up front, to create the best team with its own identity, values and playing style, united against a common enemy. Time till tell if Cameron and Clegg can pull this off. For the sake of the country, I hope they can.

To help them do it, perhaps they should invite Ian McGeechan to 10 Downing Street for a chat 😉