Effective Followership lessons from the Rugby World Cup

Stuart Preston, Senior Consultant, believes that in business as in sport an organised support structure – with effective followers at the fore – is required to enable a leader to achieve their overall goals.

Many articles have been written about the role of leaders in sport, and with good reason. Captains in sport teams need to make critical decisions under pressure in an attempt to win a game. We have recently been treated to an intense six-week period in which to observe such decision making under the tremendous pressure created by huge crowds, the weight of a nation’s expectations and 15 Stone individuals running at full speed to towards one’s midriff. The 2015 Rugby World Cup has made for compelling viewing.

One aspect that hasn’t been looked into in any great depth however, is the role of the “effective follower” or “second leader” in supporting and assisting the captain. This role is crucial, and teams that recognised its significance are the ones that progressed in the tournament.

Let us look at the finalists, the New Zealand All Blacks and Australia. Ritchie McCaw captains the All Blacks and is arguably one of Rugby’s greatest ever players, but he did not beat Australia single handedly. The All Blacks’ management team made sure to surrounded him with first-class effective followers to whom he could turn in times of crisis and doubt. These are the people who offer alternative views, who challenge the captain in a constructive way, but who back him when a decision is taken.

They are sounding boards, advisers and consiglieri; they provide a judicial set of eyes and ears, keeping their captain updated on opponents’ strategies, tactics and plays whilst keeping a keen ear on their own team’s morale.Ultimately, McCaw makes the on field decision, but he receives wise council from Kieran Reed and Dan Carter.

Australia are led by Stephen Moore who has the support of Matt Giteau, Will Genia and David Pocock.
Giteau and Genia were far from shoe-ins for the World Cup squads but Michael Cheika, the Australian coach knew that it wasn’t just their technical skills that would be of value to the team but their ability to support and help Moore on and off the field of play.

England on the other hand appear to lack effective followers. Chris Robshaw looked a lonely and isolated figure when making the crucial decision to kick for touch rather than goal against Wales. Many have asked why Farrell wasn’t at his captain’s side with the ball in hand, taking responsibility: “Don’t worry skip, I’ll slot this one over, leave it to me”.

In the final, the Australian captain Stephen Moore was replaced early in the second half because his overall performance was deemed sub-par. Rather than looking lost and rudderless, the Wallabies played some of their most effective rugby after the change was made. The Aussies’ effective followers stepped up and took command seamlessly. How often has England’s Chris Robshaw been kept on the pitch even when obviously underperforming just because he held the captainship? Did England have two or three effective followers who could have stepped in to cover the captain’s role? Perhaps not.

Business can learn a good deal from this approach. Accountability and final decisions rest on the leader’s shoulders, but how effective followers are nurtured and developed can dramatically affect decision making for the better, ultimately leading to the achievement of overall objectives in a quicker and more sustainable way.

Commercial organisations need to identify the young, confident, assured members of staff as well as experienced, battle hardened individuals then give them the development opportunities to grow into effective followers, and be recognised as such. It is not about the hero leader, it is about a humble leader who surrounds him/herself with people who speak their mind and offer alternative views, with the aim of exceeding departmental goals and objectives.

The All Blacks proved that effective followership is a platform that allows a group of individuals to become a team of world beaters.

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Stuart Preston, Senior Consultant, believes that an organised support structure – with effective followers at the fore – is required to enable a leader to achieve their overall goals.