Leading by example: lessons from rugby team captains for founders

This weekend we have the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals: the losers go home, the winners build hope. The stakes have risen a notch. So, who will prevail, and how important is team leadership now we’re at the first knock-out moment-of-truth in the competition? Let’s look at the four games first, and then consider the role and impact of leadership.

Wales v Argentina. The loss of Taulupe Faletau and Gareth Anscombe are blows, but Warren Gatland’s team have a pedigree of raising their level in the latter stages of this competition. They have a very winnable game for a place in the semi-final. Argentina looked better against Japan in their final pool game, but they lack cohesion and rhythm. Wales to win.

Ireland v New Zealand. The All Blacks recovered from their opening-day defeat by France scoring 36 tries in wins over Namibia, Uruguay, and Italy, playing free-flowing, intelligent rugby. But against an Ireland side who have not put a foot wrong in the tournament, I don’t think the All Blacks have that next gear in them. Ireland have been too good for too long and have too much momentum for the All Blacks.

England v Fiji. This is a mighty close call. For large parts of the pool stages, Fiji have played better than England, victory over Australia was a landmark result. Fiji also go into this game buoyed by a 30-22 victory over England at Twickenham less than two months ago. England struggle against the ball movement and power typical of the Pacific Islanders’ game, but I think England’s forward power will see them home. Just.

France v South Africa. A mouth-watering game, the hosts against the holders, the toughest one to call. Fabien Galthie’s team have the big game mindset, and they beat South Africa 30-26 in a superb game last year. Antoine Dupont may not be ready for this game, and South Africa have a fast defence-to-attack switch, and tackle hard defending the gain-line and slow down France’s supply of ball. However, I think France will depose the defending champions.

Team captains will play a pivotal role in these games. They will inspire their teams, make crucial decisions under pressure, assume responsibility for tactics and setting the bar high in terms of performance standards and attitude, a unifying force rallying teammates. Their influence will be huge, yet there’s more to leadership than just the captain’s armband: they are leaders who embody the spirit of the sport and leave a lasting legacy on and off the field.

Over the years, rugby has been graced by exceptional leaders who have not only led their teams to victory but have also set the standards for leadership in the sport. There is a pantheon of great captains: Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll, Richie McCaw, John Eales, Bill Beaumont, Martin Johnson, Alan Wyn-Jones, Sam Warburton, Siya Kolisi, Finlay Calder, Gavin Hastings Thierry Dusautoir and Sergio Parisse. In the women’s game, Sarah Hunter (England), Farah Palmer (New Zealand) and Fiona Coghlan (Ireland) made their mark as inspirational leaders.  

Unlike other sports, rugby demands leadership all over the field. Different parts of the game need different people to step up to lead the team beyond the captain, who contribute significantly to the team’s success. For example, the scrum-half assumes a crucial role as an influential leader, with awareness and vision they drive performance by orchestrating control over the ball in rucks, scrums, and mauls, instrumental in shaping the team’s gameplay. Their position on the team requires a level of decision making and leadership frequently falls upon them.

The fly-half emerges as an essential leader too, involved in both offensive and defensive strategies, leader of the backs and playing a vital role in developing attacking plays and coordinating defensive manoeuvres. Also due to the flyhalf normally taking on the responsibility of kicking, they are included in the decision making for taking penalties.

In the forwards, a lineout leader takes charge of calling plays and devising plays during lineouts, while the pack leader assumes control over the forward game, such as the approach to scrums. At a scrum they will decide how they will approach this scrum: just dig in, get the ball out as quick as possible or try to push them back and win a penalty. Pack leaders typically lead by example, putting a lot of work into tackling, rucking, and mauling.

Strong teams grow from strong leadership. Whether your goal is to carry a ball across a line or bring a new product to market, you won’t succeed unless everyone supports each other.  Collective leadership is a real thing. But the overall outcome requires a leader with a clear vision, the ability to communicate, and skills to inspire and motivate. Rugby is an intense arena where teamwork plays out in its rawest form.

So, drawing on the above talismanic leaders, and my own time amid the mud, sweat and beers of the game, here are some lessons in leadership I’ve learned from rugby that I think you’ll see in the weekend games, and applies to startup founders too. 

1. Mental strength & emotional discipline: thinking correctly under pressure

A leader needs to remain focused and alert whilst under pressure, so they make the right decisions at the right time. Some decisions will not be clear-cut. It is during critical situations that your team will look to you. As a leader, it’s important to be lucid, but don’t immediately choose the first possibility that comes to mind.

Also, be emotionally disciplined. Fire in the belly, but ice in the brain is a useful maxim here. A loss of emotional control affects timing, co-ordination, and the ability to read a situation. Conviction based decision making is key – a good plan executed with controlled passion now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

Team rhythm is also important in terms of workflow, energy, and efficiency. Sounds obvious for a rugby team, but it also applies to a business team that is effective and economic. Haphazard won’t get you across the line.

A game of rugby last for eighty minutes, but you only win at full time. Focus on the process of winning, not the winning, focus on the drivers that will get you results. What do you need to do to make it happen? Measure your leadership performance in the moment, control the controllables.

2. A leader creates individuals and defines the team

A team should function as one. The leader 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, so it is essential to delegate – don’t hog the remote control! If you don’t learn to trust your team with your vision, you’ll never progress.

It’s a fine balance, but one that will have a huge impact on the success of your startup.  A leader should be visible, it enables you to always know what is going on and it lets everyone know that you are around, involved, ready to join in and help if needed. The leader also creates the team spirit, and effective working relationships. Even the greatest leader cannot lead in a vacuum. A leader takes the time to know his team individually on a personal level, to establish rapport.

Knowing when to let go is important too. Keith Wood, who captained Ireland aged just 24, had to overcome the urge to do everything. As captain, you may be responsible for success, but you can’t deliver it alone. You must give others room to shine, match skills to tasks and provide encouragement not interference.

3. Positive mind set and winning attitude: lead by example

Nobody will follow you if you don’t believe in yourself. In the 2003 World Cup, Martin Johnson led England to victory from the front. He showed unwavering self-belief and unshakeable confidence. He was the pillar from which the team took strength. As a startup leader, as in rugby, your actions count for more than words. Demonstrate the determination you expect from your team in your own work and demeanour.

Morale is linked to success, and it’s the leader’s job to show positive energy and attitude. A leader is a dealer in hope. There may be days where the future looks rough, and things aren’t going to plan. Part of your job is to put out fires, assure everyone that setbacks are natural and get focus on the bigger picture. By staying calm and confident, you will help keep the team feeling the same, your team will take cues from you.

A winning rugby team is about flair, skill and individuals making a difference, it’s also about organisation, discipline, and efficiency. The captain on the field must keep talking and lead by example. Always be analysing performance, figuring out how to up the game, both in the moment and also learning about what worked and what didn’t for the next game.

4. Humility, honesty & integrity It’s vital you hold an ethical plane as a leader, setting the bar and displaying integrity, sincerity, and candour in all your actions.  Be accountable based on your values, and don’t allow compromise or mediocrity. The core of integrity is truthfulness. A fish rots from the head, so does an organisation.

Great leaders are decisive but also humble – each of the great captains I listed above have this in spades. It was never about them. Humility means that you have the self-awareness to be willing to admit you can learn from others, that you recognise you may not have all the answers. Humility gets results. You learn how to listen. Ego and pride don’t get in the way.

A rugby captain’s role is not about making rousing speeches or being liked, it is influence, not authority, not position. 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 jersey, not the name on the back.

5. Stay on your feet A leader needs to be in the moment. You’re no use on the rugby pitch if you’re down on your backside, you’re not alert to the situation around you. A captain can bring out the full potential of the team and individuals alike but needs to be deeply involved for the full eighty minutes, hands on, hands in. A captain needs to stay on his own feet to be effective.

On the pitch, a captain must always have his wits about him. He must be fully engaged, watching to see who is strong and who is flagging, who needs encouragement or calming down. Rugby is famous for its camaraderie, a bond of teamship means everyone strives harder not to let the side down, while the captain will harness this tribal, collective mentality, ambition, and energy.

Rugby captains on both sides of games at the weekend will start off with a plan to win, but only one will succeed. How we respond to setbacks is as important has how we prepare for the kick-off. Some twists can be anticipated, but others require quick thinking. Every captain needs the ability to spot when it’s time to switch tactics. Staying on your feet is a good rugby maxim and applies to any leader so they see the big picture opening up before them.


Ahead of the weekend’s games, I’m minded by T E Lawrence’s words: All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.

Each of the eight captains will be dreaming this weekend. But they’ll be pragmatic too. As Ronan O’Gara, the legendary Irish fly-half and current Head Coach at Stade Rochelais, winners of the last two European Champions Cup tournaments said: Leaders rise when their team is on their knees. Watch out for some stunning acts of leadership at the weekend.

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