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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster…

david sole

David Sole, former Scotland Rugby Captain, and Co-Founder of the School for CEOs reflects on an historic performance for the Scots this weekend:

It is the line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ which goes on to say “And treat those two imposters just the same” and it is printed on the lintel above the entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon – it is the last thing that players see before they enter the amphitheatre where they do battle.

While Kipling’s lines may seem to be a wonderful sentiment, in the aftermath of a compelling quarter final in the Rugby World Cup between Scotland and Australia, it is hard for the players to treat their fates with the same emotional response. For Australia, a mixture of relief and exhilaration as their campaign continues on to the semi-final against Argentina.  For Scotland, despair as they return home to their clubs to watch the remainder of the tournament on the television.  Yes, dealing with defeat is much harder that trying to cope with victory.

Yet perhaps what Kipling was alluding to was more ‘after the event’ and how you reflect on what has just transpired in the cold light of day, when all the emotion subsides. How do you come back from the depths of defeat to pick yourself up to compete again with the same heart, the same passion and the same pride?  It’s hard, yet that is what the very best sportsmen and women do – they accept that they have to take a risk to be a winner.  To glory in victory means that you undoubtedly will despair in defeat – the two are inextricably linked and you cannot have one without the other.

It was not the first time that tears were shed by Scottish players in a World Cup this year. The Scottish Thistles fought just as hard, just as belligerently, just as passionately against Trinidad and Tobago in the Netball World Cup in Sydney this August.  Drawing at full time, the match went into extra time, only for Scotland to lose by one goal on the stroke of the whistle.  Yes – tears were shed; tears of anguish by the players and tears of pride by the supporters, of which I was one.

As an international rugby player, there were times that I wept after defeats when playing for Scotland. Losing the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup to England in 1991; losing to the All Blacks in the second test in New Zealand in 1990 and again, losing to the same opposition in the quarter final of the first ever Rugby World Cup in 1987.  Yet that last match was different to the others.

In 1987, the All Blacks reigned supreme in the rugby world. Scotland were beaten by 30-3 and we were on the next plane home.  Our coach, Derrick Grant spoke avidly about what we had just experienced – humbling though it may have been he said that this was now the standard that we had to aspire to achieve; this was our Everest, our mountain to climb – words that stayed with me throughout my playing days.

I may have had lows, yet I was also truly fortunate to experience highs as well – most notably with the British Lions in 1989 and in leading my country to a Grand Slam in 1990. Undoubtedly these moments more than compensate for those losses, yet it is the losses that remain more vivid memories – for me, at least and in particular, that quarter final in 1987.  I cannot help but feel that the pain of defeat is what drives the very best sportspeople to the top, rather than the exhilaration of victory….the latter only serves to dull the memories and remind you of why it is that you strive so hard to excel.

So Kipling’s opinions may hold true and it will be very hard for Scotland’s heroic players to set aside their disappointment of yesterday’s game. Yet for some, it will be the moment that defines the future for them – as it was for me all those 28 years ago.


Thank you David for sharing your thoughts.  It is resilience that separates successful teams and leaders from the rest.  Those who are willing to learn from an experience of adversity or set-back will achieve the greatest success.

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