Leadership lessons from The Lions

Excitement is building for rugby fans like me as the start of the British Lions tour to New Zealand approaches. I myself will be boarding the plane in 6 weeks time, to follow The Lions for 10 days as they take on the best team in the world on their home turf. This unique sporting team is a source of inspiration for any leader trying to transform disparate, different groups into a single team, as I explain below. I draw on a post I did here back in 2010 and this recent post by Lions sponsor EY.

[For non-rugby fans, 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 tour to play against a Southern Hemisphere team (alternating between New Zealand, Australia and South Africa), followed by 40,000+ fervent fans. This group of ex-enemies have only 5 weeks to meet, train and prepare for three test matches against one of the best teams in the world. It’s almost impossible to win. But in 2013 win the Lions did, against Australia, 2 games to 1. This was the first Lions test series victory for 16 years]

1. Focus on the best team for the job

A critical first step in building a winning team is identifying the individual strengths and weaknesses of each team member in an objective way. “Being a successful leader means knowing who is best for what role, and when to deploy them, even when that’s a difficult decision to make,” explains the EY blogpost.

You have to leave old loyalties by the wayside and focus on the strongest team to perform today, even if this is unpopular. The leader of the 2017 tour,  Warren Gatland, did this in the final, deciding test match on the 2013 tour where he was also in charge. Gatland dropped Irish superstar Brian O’Driscoll in favour of Welshman Jonathan Davies, creating a s**tsrorm of protests. However, his difficult decision was vindicated when the Lions thrashed Australia to win the series, with Davies one of the stars on the night. [As Andrew Harrison pointed out in an email to me, “This decision was made even harder by the fact that Gatland gave O’Driscoll his first ever international cap when he was coach of Ireland – so he was a huge supporter but not afraid to change for the best interests of the team over a decade later.”]

2. Unite behind a common cause

A key task for any leader is to ensure the team are focused externally on winning, not internally on organisational issues. This is especially true when two companies come together in a merger. In the case of The Lions it is not two but four groups coming together; players from the four home nations have to quickly forget the animosity they normally feel towards one another. They do this by uniting behind a  common purpose: beating the best team in the world on their home ground. The pre-match talk below by Jim Telfer, a coach on the 1997 tour to South Africa has become legendary; “This is your Everest,” he tells the players in hushed tones. Note the lack of Powerpoint and sexy videos and the crappy meeting room; great leaders can touch your heart and soul with their words alone.

The benefits of focusing externally on a shared purpose are shown in research by EY. Companies operating with a clear and driving sense of purpose, beyond the goal of just making money, outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of 10 between 1996 and 2011.

3. Invest time in team building

As the EY post says, “You can have the top players in the world, but if they don’t get along, then that team is going to be worth far less than the sum of its parts.” This means that the ‘softer’ side of team building is important, not just the ‘technical’ parts of setting strategy, agreeing action plans and building skills. The Lions start their time together with team building, to bond and get to know each other, and to co-create a set of team values and code of behaviour. Another aspect of the tour is players sharing rooms, to bond with colleagues from other home nations.

4. Measure progress

Businesses need ways to see how the team is working,” suggests the EY post. It is important to have some metrics to check progress. For a modern rugby team like the Lions, quantitative feedback from a wealth of ‘KPIs’ is captured and shared: tackle rates, ruck retention, length of possession and ground gained etc.

In the case of business, sales, profit and market share provide important measures of success. But to dig deeper, we use a survey called BEAT for ‘Brand Engagement and Alignment of Team). This survey tracks measures over time such a clarity of vision, sense of purpose and effectiveness of collaboration, providing valuable diagnosis to help explain why results are heading in the right direction, or not.

In conclusion, team building has the best chance of working if 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. Warren Gatland and his Lions succeeded in 2013. Fingers crossed he can pull off the same amazing result in New Zealand, especially for those like me going all the way there to watch!