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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

The 6 Nations is almost here – but who has the top team?

2019 6N Launch 002

Late January always prompts a lot of debate in my world as friends, colleagues and business associates ask for perspectives on who is going to win the 6 Nations. This year, the competition is more open than ever before and in my view, any of the top 5 teams can beat any other of the top 5 teams on their day. Perhaps I’m being harsh in discounting Italy, but the Azzurri still don’t have quite the firepower to really unsettle other sides consistently – yet.

So what is going to make the difference? What really differentiates sporting (and business) teams?

Of course, there are a multitude of factors, but Damian Hughes in his excellent book “The Barcelona Way”, focuses on culture as a key driver of success. He references Baron and Hannan’s study of Silicon Valley start-ups and their five different cultures but focuses particularly on the ‘Commitment Culture’ in successful organisations – a culture in which strong emotional bonds form the basis of employee attachment.

Undoubtedly, creating the right culture within a high performance environment is key to success, but this does not happen overnight. You have to work at culture – being really clear about what is important in your team and what behaviours you want and need to exhibit. This is particularly pertinent for the leadership figures in that team because if they do not demonstrate those behaviours then why should anyone else. As Peter Drucker was reputed to have said ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ – if you have the leadership and people who really understand what is going to lead to successful outcomes and they behave consistently, then you are more than half way there.

Creating the right culture isn’t all however. You can have the best culture around, but if you don’t ‘police’ it you will still not succeed. So central to this, is the ability for team members to hold each other to account and to be prepared to give and receive really honest feedback….receiving it and acting on it. That feedback could be on performance, behaviours or any other aspect that relates to performance and like culture, this does not emerge quickly. It requires a high level of trust across all team members – something that relies on both a degree of humility and courage on behalf of the individual team members and a recognition that they need to put their personal agendas on hold for the benefit of the team.

An absence of trust is the foundation of Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” so without trust in the team, it is unlikely that other critical performance aspects will really work.

Reflecting on the attributes of teams that I have been involved in, both in sport and in business, these key elements of culture and trust hold true if you are going to achieve exceptional performance. Getting the culture right in a British and Irish Lions team or a Grand Slam winning Scottish team were at the heart of the successes these teams enjoyed – as was the trust that players and coaches had in each other. It was always about the best outcome for the team and group rather than letting individual agendas or egos get in the way – and that wasn’t always easy, particularly when players weren’t selected or games didn’t go to plan. The candour and honesty to really look in the mirror and do some serious self-examination was central to moving forward and getting even better next time around. The first time we had a ‘feedback session’ after an international match it felt very awkward and uncomfortable as people faced into the real truths about their performance – but the more we did it, the more it became part of our DNA and our modus operandi. Fuelled by a desire to continually improve, having the right conversation was a critical ingredient of our ultimate success.

So where does this leave us for the 6 Nations? Observing teams and squads from afar and reading snippets in the media will give you some sense of what is important to each of the teams competing in the Championship and perhaps some insights into their culture. But you will only really know what it is like when you are much closer to the action – to observe the behaviours, the conversations and the way in which each team operates – those are the real clues to success…..or not.

It is going to be another fascinating Championship and in a World Cup year, one that has even more significance. And clearly, with my own biases, I’ll be hoping that the Scots will be celebrating come the 16th March.


This article was written by David Sole OBE, School for CEOs Managing Partner and former Scotland Rugby captain.

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