Tuesday 19 September 2017

Lions captain needs to lead from front

Philip Matthews in action for Ireland
Philip Matthews in action for Ireland

Phillip Matthews

After all the hype, the British and Irish Lions players finally leave for New Zealand tomorrow for what will be the biggest test of character in their careers.

The Land of the Long White Cloud is a forbidding place to play rugby at the best of times. But in the dead of the southern hemisphere winter, with lusty home fans baying for that rare delicacy that is Lion's blood (this tour only takes place every 12 years), it cannot get more challenging.

Leading the 41-strong band of warriors into Hades is 28-year-old Welshman Sam Warburton.

Captaining a Lions squad on a Test series in New Zealand must rank among the sporting world's ultimate tests of leadership. Over the course of a seven-week tour and a couple of weeks before departure, Warburton must bring together in spirit and mind, a disparate group of muscular athletes conditioned to unleash superhuman aggression - on each other.

The Lions squad is made up of players who normally line-up for Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales; opposing each other - sometimes in a none-too sporting way. The squad also includes players born in New Zealand, South Africa, Tonga … and Nashville, Tennessee, (answers on a postcard) but that's a mere detail.

Leadership, at sporting or executive level, is challenging but when it requires building bridges over troubled waters, it is doubly difficult. To succeed, Warburton will need to have leadership skills of the highest order. Skills that work in any walk of life be it sport, business or politics for that matter.

For Warburton, building a team bond so strong that it unites disparate forces to overcome rugby's biggest beast in its own den is a Herculean task. Indeed, one perhaps better suited to the great charmer, Orpheus.

But leadership - in any arena - requires more than eloquence. It requires competence, character, integrity, authenticity, presence and commitment.

Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, says: "The first job of any leader is to inspire trust. Trust is confidence born of two dimensions: character and competence. Character includes your integrity, motive, and intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, skills, results, and track record."

If Warburton's intent is authentically caring, empathetic and fair-minded, then he will be trusted by his colleagues. But, and there's a big but, he had better show his intent and integrity not just in words, but in his body language, behaviour and actions on and off the pitch. He needs to "live and be" this way at all times. The same applies in business leadership.

In order to truly inspire, you must have a lifelong commitment to personal development; a commitment to continually learn about yourself, how people experience you, and the impact you have on others. You need to make people feel stronger for being part of the team and thereby capable of being the best that they can be.

In today's rapidly changing, disrupted world, individuals and organisations need to be always open to learning. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck describes it as having a "growth mindset". Peter Senge, author of The Learning Organisation, describes it as aiming for "personal mastery". Great leaders "live in a continual learning mode - they never 'arrive'," he says.

Paul O'Connell is a perfect example. His inspirational leadership was only partly derived from his ability. He led by example, had empathy and care for his team. This allowed him to credibly demand the highest personal standards from everyone. One former teammate, Alan Quinlan, said O'Connell's "greatness" meant he could challenge you in a way "that somehow gave you belief".

Business leaders need this type of credibility to inspire. So too, Sam Warburton.

A place in the Temple of the Gods awaits if he captains the Lions to a series win in New Zealand. Warburton may take inspiration from Orpheus who got out of Hades alive. However, he should take note that according to Greek myth, he failed to rescue his wife, lost the confidence of the Gods and was killed by the Maeneds (translation: the raving ones). Let's hope it's not an omen.

Dr Phillip Matthews is a business consultant, executive coach and former British & Irish Lion who captained Ireland 13 times. He is a former president and CEO of the National College of Ireland. This article is based on a recent address he gave to an Institute of Directors' event

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