Leadership and control

Gatland eyes up

When working with leadership teams as part of a culture change or development programme, we sometimes ask them to negotiate a behavioural contract with each other based upon what we call five stations:

1. What is your primary purpose as a team or why are we here?

2. What are our leadership processes and how will we operate?

3. What’s our leadership foundation, our style of leading, our qualities??

4. How will we interact with each other or our leadership culture?

5. What’s the role of each individual within our leadership system?

Being a fan or rugby union, it’s fascinating to observe how this leadership model applies to team management, something I was particularly interested to apply to the unique environment of the last Lions tour, a unique institution which involves shaping a high performing team from the best individual talent from these islands within a matter of weeks.

Professional rugby teams are complex machines. Adopting a military metaphor, the coaches are the commissioned officers, the generals if you like,  who control the master plan, the strategy and their team of NCOs. The NCOs are the on-field leaders who input to and then motivate the players to implement the strategy before acting as the pivot between players and coaches, providing insights and feedback.

It’s obviously important that the generals and the platoon leaders, lieutenants and sergeants buy into the same behavioural contract at the start of something like a Lions tour. On the tour to Australia in 2013, Warren Galtland was head coach while the key on-field leaders were Warburton; O’driscoll, O’connell; Alun Wyn Jones, Lydiate and Parling.

In various interviews, Gatland had been asked very direct questions about his attitude to leadership.Talking predominantly about his role as boss of Wales, he talks about core values dear to his heart including trust; loyalty and honesty the importance of really hard work and how peer pressure is vital for the selection of the optimum leader. He also talks about the importance of empowering coaches and players and how a plan empowers leaders on the pitch. He describes how the most successful teams are where senior players take ownership of the game and the plan. Interestingly, Gatland states that he “loves individualism” and how “talented people are a bit different and it’s important to harness this so they conform to the team plan”.

Famously, however, quicksilver talent seldom wants to conform as many French coaches have found down the years. He obviously likes coaching Wales who he characterises as being unwilling to critique their peers and ironically rather like the French in that regard, clearly recalls the famous French win over New Zealand as an example of individualism igniting on the day but failing in the long run.

I believe that the difference between what Gatland says and does is very revealing when viewed in the context of the 2013 Lions tour:

1. Selection: The 2013 tour party was notable for having few star names or blockbuster players in it. This was largely circumstantial but Gatland clearly has issues with the likes of the Quixotic Welshman James Hook, who he dropped from the Wales party and who never stood a chance of touring. Mavericks like Henson and Cipriani clearly never stood a chance of being considered even though the latter has recent  form in Australia. Instead he chose to tour with just two, relatively young and hitherto fairly unspectacular fly halves. Does this simply reflect a talent low point or does it say something about Gatland’s actual leadership style and how he views control?

2. The tour skipper: By opting for Warburton, the young captain of Wales, an exemplary individual and player yet someone who seemingly had to be talked into taking the captain’s armband, did Gatland overlook the obvious experienced candidates like Bod and Poc (the choice of most former players), because of doubts over their fitness or form? Or was the decision a sign that Gatland wanted his own man who could be trusted to understand and implement his plan?

He deliberately placed Warburton in a tough position given he was clearly under pressure for his place, faced a great deal of criticism as a result and, although he is clearly a decent operator with regard to referee rapport, in my view he currently lacks the necessary experience and gravitas that comes with experience and seldom displayed evidence of yet having the top two inches and cool head needed during a game.

I believe Gatland’s language consistently displays a desire to control every aspect of  what can be an unpredictable game. Although he talks of empowering his team, he caveats his statements with phrases like “to deliver the plan” and “the more you plan the more I can pull back”.

But, as great generals have famously said,  plans go out the window at the first engagement. In short, the best rugby teams have leaders all over the park who can improvise and, informed by the plan, make decisions “in the moment”. World cup winning coach Woodward’s teams, in contrast, were full of leaders who were trained to think clearly under pressure. Yet he had many years with them not a few weeks and he failed spectacularly as Lions CEO.

3. Captaincy during the tests: Gatland is clearly a man who has fixed ideas about the gameplan, call it “Gatball” if you will. He likes a predictable  forward platform and appears to see the centres as rugby ground zero where the game is won or lost. This philosophy isn’t universally shared, especially within more empowering rugby cultures like France or Australia where much pivots through the fly half.

Gatland’s fly halves tend to be more pragmatic than poetic which has brought much success for Wales in the northern hemisphere, perhaps the yin to the Welsh rugby culture’s yang of flair and backline craft. Yet famously they have not been able to achieve the same success against teams from south of the equator who are clearly the pace setters on the global stage.

There were a number of occasions in Test 1 when Sexton looked to the old guard of Poc and Bod to confirm decisions rather than Warburton. To the onlooker, it appeared that the leadership system was working and the on field leaders were sharing responsibility. But by the second test, Poc was gone and Sexton appeared to be playing much more to agreed set patterns, standing deep and kicking Garryowens. This nullified most of the attacking play as the kicking plan backfired.The Lions defended well with Warburton and Bod leading by example with their faces stuck in rucks for most of the game. But they stuck to the plan and lost.

For me, the mark of problems within the leadership cadre on tour were most apparent in this Test and were summed up by a single incident. The Lions won a penalty with no time on the clock and were camped on half way. They could and should have advanced the ball to ensure that it was definitely within the excellent kicker, Halfpenny’s range. This was exactly the call Johnson made at exactly the same time during the 2003 rugby World Cup final and the rest is history. Warburton was off the field and it isn’t clear who made the decision but Halfpenny kicked without the extra yardage. It fell short and Australia drew level in the series, gained momentum and the series moved to Sydney’s crunch match.

4. Dropping BOD and Reverting to the Wales Comfort Zone: On the back of the disappointment of Melbourne, in an unprecedented move, Gatland’s strategy lurched radically back towards his comfort zone, in my view. He changed almost half of the team and began the Sydney test, the decider, with 10 Welshmen and Alun Wyn Jones as the captain for the first time on tour. AWJ is a great warrior but again, he never craved the captaincy. Apart from Parling who is still a novice, he was the last of the experienced on-field leadership cadre remaining with Brian O’driscoll being controversially dropped from the squad altogether.

Some applauded Gatland’s courage, ruthlessness and decisiveness saying it’s part and parcel of the modern game. The vast majority, however, including the highest profile figures and Lions legends like Willie John McBride expressed disbelief at the number of changes between tests, the apparent inconsistency in the manifest strategy and style and the way the legend Brian O’driscoll was treated given his commitment and hard work could not be faulted (qualities Gatland states he values highly), a man who was at the very heart of the Lions defence in Test 2.

A few critics and commentators, shocked by Gatland’s actions, tentatively suggested that perhaps he had this surprise in store all along and hid his intentions so well that everyone was surprised, most notably the Australians who were on the back foot as a result.

My personal opinion, is that it’s important to read between the lines of what Gatland himself says and what he does. I believe he analysed past Lions tours and came to the conclusion that it is virtually impossible to blend the playing styles of the 4 nations completely to the point that the players become unconsciously competent and comfortable in new partnerships. They just don’t have the time. Recent results appear to back this up. He tried on tour, hence many variations within partnerships, but it failed to deliver the control he needed. Hence the fans witnessed largely pragmatic and unspectacular fare until he reverted to type.

I also believe that Gatland was forced by injuries and the inability to facilitate the style of play he favours, to revert to a Wales-dominated side who know his style and the plan by heart. Remember his phrase about on-field leadership,“the more planning you do the more I can pull back”? Well his plans were undermined by the reality of the tour, so rather than pull back for the most important game of his career, I believe he stepped right back in to control the game by deploying the troops he knows and the style he spent years cultivating, supplemented at key moments and in key positions by a handful of talented players from England and Ireland.

What about the leaders? Well, despite his statement that “the most successful sides have been where the leaders have taken ownership of the plan”, he had to assume greater ownership of the strategy by appointing the players he knows best and in the end had fewer strategic leaders on the field than ever. He didn’t have to as he could easily have opted for O’driscoll to play with Roberts, a winning combination after all. Yet in the same interview he lists his greatest mistake as once appointing a leader who wasn’t in accord with the views of his peers. The players from Wales expected their general to enforce his will and, sentiment aside, he did by dropping the most capped player for the most important game.

Whether this is true is pure conjecture, of course, Whether this was always the plan is open to debate. Whether fielding 10 players from one country and making so many changes between tests is wise, is an interesting talking point. Whether this approach clashes with the values and culture of the Lions is a question that will certainly be asked as part of the review of this tour. But the records will read that they thrashed Australia in the final game and broke many records in the process.

Despite the leadership controversies, Gatland’s team delivered as the professional players responded well to the crisis and drama and the starting 15 as well as powerful bench delivered, improvising well from a solid platform of forwards.

Interestingly, the Australians had their on field leader recently restored for the game and in Genia had an amazing cavalry commander. But they were clearly at odds with their coach. And they lost, badly.

Obviously Gatland couldn’t fly the team by wire on D day yet still, they won, guaranteeing his place in the pantheon of the Lions.  But I wonder what lessons both he and his management team learned about leadership in the process and how the experience will transform the fortunes of Wales and indeed Lions teams in the future?

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