Lessons for startups from the rugby world cup: the leadership qualities of Richie McCaw

Welcome to the fourth in a series of rugby world cup blogs and the lessons for startups from thestartupfactory.tech – check out the blog section on the tsf.tech web site: https://thestartupfactory.tech/journal.

Entrepreneurial leaders have become the new role models of the C21st, figures like Bezos, Chesky and Musk are seen as pioneers in the mold of earlier innovators like Edison, Ford and Tesla. However, we tend to fall back on broad stereotypes without really understanding what makes entrepreneurial leaders unique.

The search for the characteristics and traits of leaders has been ongoing for centuries. History’s greatest philosophical writings from Plato’s to Plutarch have explored the question What qualities distinguish an individual as a leader? Underlying this search was the recognition of the importance of leadership traits, and the assumption that leadership is rooted in the characteristics that certain individuals possess.

Successful rugby teams have always had strong, inspirational leaders and the importance of this role is evident over the years from people I’ve admired: John Smit (South Africa), John Eales (Australia), Sean Fitzpatrick (New Zealand), Raphael Ibanez (France), Sam Warburton (Wales), Willie John McBride (Ireland), Martin Johnson (England) and Finlay Calder (Scotland).

Finlay was my role model when I managed to shuffle over a rugby pitch. An open side flanker, he captained the British Lions tour to Australia in 1989. He was as hard as granite, but famously humble. Calder led with intelligence and a cerebral air, but he was never in danger of being described as nice, on the pitch he was an enforcer.

Another great captain in the same mould was All Blanks flanker Richie McCaw, who many regard as the greatest rugby player of all time. He captained the All Blacks in 110 out of his 148 test matches, and won two Rugby World Cups, retiring after their 2015 victory. He is the most capped test rugby player of all time with 148 caps, and the first rugby union player to win 100 tests.

His debut for New Zealand was against Ireland in 2001, aged just 20, and despite his first touch of the ball resulting in a knock-on, he was Man of the Match. He was subsequently selected as New Zealand’s first choice openside flanker and became a regular selection, only missing a few games due to reoccurring concussions.

In 2006 he became All Blacks captain. After defeat in the 2007 World Cup quarter-finals, 18-20 versus France, his captaincy came under criticism. It was New Zealand’s earliest exit from a World Cup. An emotional McCaw could not hide his disappointment: If I knew the answers we would have sorted it out. We will be thinking about it for a long time.

He was accused of not inspiring his team, lacking the ability to change when plan A was not working, and not providing leadership on the field. But he learnt from his mistakes, and McCaw led his team to the 2011 World Champions title, beating France 8–7 in the final.

McCaw, quite incredibly, achieved a staggering 89.3% winning ratio in international test match rugby career – he was been on the winning side in 9 out of every 10 tests he has played. He’s the most capped All Blacks captain, captain for nine years. McCaw’s record is as astounding as it is remarkable. His leadership was unquestionable, his playing ability envied and judged to be the epitome of an openside flanker. McCaw was always there in the mix, leading by being there right on the shoulder of a teammate in the thick of the action.

Winning leaders like McCaw offer valuable insights into the attributes needed for leading startup teams. The frenetic and unrelenting pace of rugby demands the same discipline, clarity and focus as in the startup space, so what were McCaw’s key attributes and traits that we can consider in today’s turbulent startup environment?

Mental strength & emotional discipline: thinking correctly under pressure A leader needs to remain focused and alert whilst under pressure during a game, so that he can make the right decisions at the right time. This requires considerable mental fortitude. Some decisions will not be clear-cut. It is during critical situations that your team will look to you for guidance and you may be forced to make a quick decision. As a leader, it’s important to be lucid. Don’t immediately choose the first or easiest possibility, and be emotionally disciplined. Fire in the belly, but ice in the brain is a useful maxim here.

Emotional discipline is important. As a role model, the example set by the captain must meet every expectation he has of the players. For example, if the captain becomes angry with the referee and constantly questions his decisions, then he cannot expect his players to accept refereeing decisions themselves.

A loss of emotional control will affect timing, co-ordination and the ability to read the game. A loss of emotional control will also be seen as a sign of weakness by the opposition, boosting their confidence whilst undermining that of your team. Thinking correctly under pressure at all times ensure the team continues to move forward.

A leader creates individuals and defines the team A team executes plays as a unit, they should function as one. The captain exerts the effort to organise, reminding teammates their respective roles in the team. He ensures the right people are in the right seats on the bus.

Leading the charge from the front is one aspect of leadership, but success is ultimately down to teamwork. If you don’t learn to trust your team with your vision, you might never progress to the next stage. It’s a fine balance, but one that will have a huge impact on the productivity of your business.

A leader should be visible to the team. Visibility clearly shows that you care and are approachable, it enables you to always know what is going on and it lets teammates know that you are ready to join in and help if needed, and be part of the team – but delegate, don’t hog the remote control! It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory. You take the front line when there is danger. Start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, in the team, not more followers.

The leader also creates the team spirit, effective working relationships within the entire team. A team can only work as one effectively if they maintain an environment free from individual tensions. Your ability to get everyone working and pulling together is essential to your success. Even the greatest leader cannot lead in a vacuum. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.

Finally, a good leader takes the time to know his teammates individually, on a personal level, to establish rapport. It is easy to play with someone you know and trust. A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together, individually and collectively.

Positive mind set and winning attitude: lead by example  If you lose that major client, or your cashflow dries up, guiding your team through the crisis is important. Morale is linked to success, and it’s your job as the team leader to instil motivation by positive energy and attitudes, and a winning belief, especially when times are tough. A leader is a dealer in hope.

There may be days where the future looks tough and things aren’t going to plan. Part of your job as a leader is to put out fires, assure everyone that setbacks are natural and get focus back on the bigger picture. As the leader, by staying calm and confident, you will help keep the team feeling the same. Remember, your team will take cues from you. Inspiring your team to see the vision of successes to come is vital.

Leading by example is a given. There is no greater motivation than seeing the leader working alongside everyone else, showing that hard work is being done on every level. By proving your commitment to your colleagues and your role, you will not only earn the respect of your team, but will also instil belief. McCaw was outstanding at this aspect of leadership.

Humility, candour & integrity  Great leaders display integrity, sincerity and candour in all their actions. Be accountable on your values, don’t allow compromise or settle for less, that only delivers mediocrity. Integrity requires truthfulness, to all people, in every situation. A fish rots from the head, so does an organisation. The role of the leader is paramount in setting the values.

Great leaders are decisive but also humble. Humility means that you have the self-confidence and self-awareness to recognise the value of others without feeling threatened – you are willing to admit you could be wrong, that you recognise you may not have all the answers.

Humility gets results. You learn how to listen, your pride doesn’t get in the way, it doesn’t keep you from sharing the credit that needs to be shared. A great leader is not a self-promoting narcissist but one dedicated to the team. As McCaw showed, a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. Their responsibility is getting all the players playing for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back.

McCaw epitomised the four leadership qualities highlighted. He was not about making speeches or being liked, he lead by his presence and his influence, not the authority – McCaw shows a great leader’s courage comes from passion, not position. Leadership is not about popularity.

As in rugby, it’s the same in business, the ability to remain composed is a telling factor in performance whether it contributes to the scoreboard or the bottom-line. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm, but in the frenzy of the storm, when the game is on a knife-edge, holding your nerve, keeping focus and stopping the blood rushing to the head and being a leader motivator, thinker is what is needed.

Like McCaw, entrepreneurial leaders are hands-on, they want to be in the middle of the buzz and hustle; like the captain in the middle of the pitch, startup leaders hold the responsibility for galvanising performance and guiding culture, as well as standing as a role model. The way in which they respond to opportunity and crisis, and chart, accelerate and sustain growth for their business stand as measures of their impact and their character.

McCaw never gave in without giving his all. It is his defining quality. When all else is stripped back – his back row prowess, the ferocity of his scrummaging, his octopus-like stretching arms over the maul, his work-rate, his rugby intellect – it was the fierce, elemental nature of his play that set him apart.

As he once said, You know you’re really dedicated to something when you lie about being hurt so no one will make you stop. He gave it his all, from first whistle to last. Uncompromising, committed, a colossus, he is in the pantheon of all time great players, and captains. He’s not at the 2019 World Cup, but his legacy makes him an inspiring role model for all startup leaders, today and in the future.

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