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Three leadership lessons from the Rugby World Cup

Gautam Sahgal

Often, we hear about sporting occasions from a negative perspective when it comes to the workplace distractions it generates – employees leaving the office early and others taking time off ‘sick’ to watch the games. Contributor Gautam Sahgal, Managing Director – Perkbox 

But what about the flip slide – and the positives we as leaders can learn from watching team sports? Rugby, in particular, is a sport we can learn a huge amount from as a sport known for its relentless spirit of togetherness, trust and resilience. Let’s discuss three leadership lessons we can learn from the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Create a culture of honesty
This should be a starting point for any successful leader – be it in business or on the pitch. Rugby players are professionals at giving instant feedback and not taking this feedback personally. A great example is the All Blacks, who have created a feedback-rich environment where the performance of each individual is completely transparent. Everyone can see how they and their teammates are doing at any point and can compare this to their own performance and motivate themselves. 

This level of honesty can also help individuals to be more sincere with themselves and review their own performance accurately – reducing the need for hands-on management and creating more autonomy throughout teams or organisations. 

To create this culture in your own company, lead by example and be honest with your employees about the reasoning behind decisions in the business. It could also be a good idea to make each individual’s OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) visible to the entire company as a way to promote transparency. 

Stay on the bus
As has been widely reported, rugby teams stick together and have an approach of true solidarity when it comes to playing as a team. This is something that is crucial to foster as a team leader so you will retain talent as teams go through its ups and downs.  

This applies as much to sports as it does to businesses, which will also go through both wins and losses. What’s important is that your employees still retain belief in the company and its mission. If you don’t foster this as a leader, not only will it result in staff who are lacking resilience, but your staff retention and morale will also be negatively affected. 

Rugby teams also have a great ability to quickly bounce back from mistakes, which is something worthwhile for any leader to foster in their organisation. For example, after losing to Ireland in their opening World Cup game by a handsome margin, the Scottish team recalibrated and quickly learned from the mistakes in their performance. They went on to beat Samoa convincingly in their second game, something which had been described as a ‘do or die’ situation. 

Don’t forget the importance of trust
Trust is crucial, not only from the perspective of creating a relationship with your employees but from a shareholder and customer perspective too. In rugby, a strong level of trust between coach and team is a trait in any winning team. 

When the going gets tough on the rugby field, and the wheels are starting to fall off, players must trust themselves and their team-mates to get things going back in the right direction. In these hard times they have to believe and trust in the structures that coaching staff and fellow players have implemented. If one person starts to doubt, this could lead to losing a game or competition. This is something that is easily transferable to any organisation. 

Trust is also crucial between the decision-maker and those carrying out the decision i.e. the leader and their employees. In rugby, the ball carrier is the decision-maker and trusts that everyone behind him will be attentive and available, while those ready to receive the ball aim to be in the best possible position. Once a decision is made by the ball carrier, everyone on the team makes the maximum effort for the result of that decision to accomplish the best outcome for the team. And what’s more, if this execution fails, you will still have the support of your team as they trust you did the best you could!

So, for the remainder of the Rugby World Cup, why not look at it as a positive chance to learn some lessons about how you can be the best leader possible. After all, it’s an opportunity that only comes around once every four years! 


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