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Former Australia Rugby Captain John Eales on Leadership

The idea of enterprise leadership makes sense in sport as well as business; and the success of the All Blacks' selection policy provides a good example of why it's useful in many different situations

Sport sells itself on 50:50 moments. The turning points, often late in a contest, that decide an outcome. The bounce of a ball, a referee’s call, a clutch hit.

But how often are these moments truly 50:50? My thesis is that they are rarely 50:50. That they rarely come down to the toss of a coin. Because otherwise, how do you explain why some teams tend to win 80-90% of the 50:50s and other teams tend to lose 80-90% of them?

The answer is straightforward: not all teams are equal, and it’s as much factors like culture and leadership, and not just a team’s bank balance and depth of talent, that separate the good from the great.

That’s why CEB’s findings on enterprise leadership really interest me. In “Creating Enterprise Leaders“, CEB defines enterprise leadership as a situation where leaders both lead their teams to high performance, and contribute to and make use of the performance of other teams.

In fact, when leaders embrace enterprise leadership they improve revenue performance of peer teams by 5% and provide a 12% revenue growth advantage to the business overall, according to CEB data.

Enterprise Leadership and Sport

In the parallel universe of sport, where coaches talk about the compounding benefits of 1% incremental improvements, 12% is phenomenal. Now, sporting metaphors for business are not always perfect but they are often insightful. And while we measure performance outcomes for business in profit and loss terms, in sport we measure them in wins and losses – a different but similar bottom line.

Sir Dave Brailsford, a former British Cycling performance director who led British teams to success at both the Olympic Games in London and British Cycling’s first ever victory in the Tour de France, was one of the first sports leaders I recall to have articulated this more systemic idea of sports performance.

If you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike,” he said, “and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

Similarly, Rugby Union, the sport I played internationally for more than 10 years, is a complex game requiring integration across an extensive system; a collection of specialists across the 15 positions on the field. But each one of those specialists must work in concert with others on the field, performing, in addition to their specialised role, the same routine tasks of everyone else in general play.

As you analyse the many ways to win a rugby match – through the forwards, through the backs, by kicking, by running, by keeping it tight or by playing it loose – the ultimate way to win is what has been popularized as the “ensemble game.”

This was a term I first heard through rugby journalist Spiro Zavos, describes the comprehensive integration of strategy and capability in employing the most effective, and often diverse, tactics – or contributions – from each specialist at the most appropriate time in the game. The ensemble game approach draws some very strong parallels to CEB’s concept of enterprise leadership.

Enterprise Leadership and All Black Selection Policy

The concept of the ensemble game is also powerful when selecting an international team, a collection of the best players from the feeder clubs or provincial teams. The ultimate ensemble expert in selecting an international team is the All Blacks. In over 100 years of playing rugby the New Zealand national side has won over 75% of the matches the team has contested. In all matches since the advent of professional rugby in 1996 this figure is closer to 85%.

It’s an extraordinary record for a country that has fewer rugby players than many other nations and draws only from a total population less than the size of Sydney. Central to the All Blacks’ record is that, even though it is just one team, that team is the product of a system that works due to the principles of enterprise leadership.

Within the All Blacks’ system, the administration has greater central control over the five provincial Super Rugby teams, from which the All Blacks squad is selected, than do their closest competitors, notably Australia and South Africa.

So in effect, the leaders of their test and provincial teams, whilst striving for optimal individual and team performance, are also collaborating within and across teams for the ultimate success of the All Blacks. They collaborate in the specialised domains of tactics, physical preparation, medical and recovery practices, and areas such as scrummaging and goal kicking to mention a few. The sum of these increments, only possible through their own special brand of enterprise leadership, has driven compounded gains at the international level.

Such an integrated system, which encourages and rewards enterprise leadership, is in contrast to, for example, Australia’s federated model of five teams operating in competitive isolation, even through periods outside the national Super Rugby competition when international test rugby is played.

Notably, when various Australian head coaches like Bob Dwyer, Rod Macqueen and Michael Cheika have been able to break down some of these barriers, they have experienced more consistent and world leading success at international level. Current Wallaby coach, Michael Cheika, facilitated such success last year by incorporating some of the provincial coaches into his national set up, and so fostered an environment of sharing and performance improvement across Australian rugby rather than in isolated pockets.

His success in moving the Wallabies’ world ranking from sixth to second at the Rugby World Cup bears testimony to his results. And hopefully he’s not finished yet.

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