Learning rugby's real leadership lessons

09 September 2011

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Professor Brad Jackson

Rugby is a bellwether for the state of leadership in New Zealand, says a Business School leadership specialist, but the valuable lessons to be learned are not the obvious ones.

Professor Brad Jackson, who holds the Fletcher Building Education Trust Chair in Leadership, says that although the game no longer occupies the dominant place it once did in the country's cultural life it remains a rich source of insights into leadership.

Above all, he says, it can help answer three important questions: What is leadership? What is it for? And how can we create it?

"I have learned a lot in terms of having my views of leadership challenged – and not only on the rugby field," says the British-Canadian rugby enthusiast who claims to have become an "overnight Kiwi" the first time he watched the All Blacks contest the Bledisloe Cup.

"The way we conventionally see leadership is fairly two dimensional. In that view, whether good or bad things happen to an organisation, it all comes down to the leader."

In reality, leadership is an interactive process in which people work toward a common purpose, he says.

"That becomes clear when you attend a live rugby game. Television coverage misses a lot of the action, because so much happens off the ball. The process of interdependence – the distributed leadership perspective – is seldom picked up by the cameras.

There are other factors, too, including the degree of uncertainty that the mere shape of the ball introduces and the fact that, despite its hallowed traditions, the game is continually evolving in response to new rules, performance standards, business imperatives, geographies and technologies.

"What I enjoy most about watching rugby on the pitch is that it becomes a wonderful metaphor for how communities work or don't work in the face of complexity."

The secret weapon of the All Blacks is their ability to create order out of chaos; to play a fluid, open game while having a repertoire of moves available at any stage of the game. That capability doesn't arise on the field, but in practice, well away from the public gaze, says Jackson.

Jackson believes that in order to understand what leadership is for, we need to have a narrower view of what it is.

"A lot of what we call leadership is actually management."

He worries that, as an event, Rugby World Cup 2011 may be over-managed and under-led.

"The real leadership challenge is not the All Blacks winning. It is whether as a nation we are putting on a memorable event which will have long-term benefits."

The slogan that won New Zealand the hosting rights in 2006 – 'a stadium of four million people' – was an energising one, he says, but the emphasis on how many tickets have sold and on how much the infrastructure has cost is a distraction.

"They are management issues not leadership ones. Leadership is not about executing on time. I don't think the Rugby World Cup has sufficiently captured the imagination."

Nevertheless, Jackson takes comfort from another rugby lesson – the power of 'grass roots' organisation.

Top-down 'administrative leadership' is exerted authority. More important is bottom-up 'adaptive leadership', which frequently occurs despite administrative leadership. The trick in any society, he says, is to connect the two to produce 'enabling leadership'.

"You need to create a kind of 'strange attractor' around which people organise. My view is that it just means getting back to the game itself, and to the values at club level that unite players and supporters."

Professor Jackson discussed the leadership lessons of rugby in an entertaining public lecture chaired by Massey academic and former Black Sticks player Dr Margot Edwards. The lecture formed part of The University of Auckland Winter Lecture series, New Zealand's Rugby World, which offered a range of historical, cultural and social reflections on the place and future of rugby in New Zealand.