Mastering the Game: Lessons in Leadership from Rugby to the Boardroom

Game

By Darren Cassidy

Mastering the Game: Lessons in Leadership from Rugby to the Boardroom explores the parallels between high-performance rugby and successful business leadership. Drawing from personal experiences on the pitch, Darren Cassidy delves into shared purpose, adaptability, a growth mindset, and motivating teams as key principles that drive success in both arenas.

Watching the recent Rugby World Cup, I found myself absorbed in the leadership, decision-making, skill, strategy and team camaraderie that underscore the game. Sport has played a significant role in my life, especially driving and delivering strong team performance, shaping my approach across various aspects of my career. Drawing first-hand from my experience on the pitch, I see a striking resemblance between high-performance rugby and successful business stewardship. While the spotlight often shines on individual brilliance, the collective effort, underpinned by a shared purpose, adaptability, a growth mindset and motivation, powers success on the field and in the boardroom.

The game of rugby is rife with business leadership lessons, ranging from preparation and planning, team alignment, visibility, and communication to how we face success and failure, which cultivate shared accountability and commitment among team members. Both adrenaline and nerves peak in the pre-game environment, shaping individual and team experiences. In turn, the post-game environment is charged with emotions from joy to frustration, reflecting encounters in the business world, offering learning opportunities from every win or loss, and aiding the ability to refocus and adapt to the next challenge.

On the pitch, when players are in the ‘‘zone’’, often described as a ‘‘flow’’ state, as defined by Csikszentmihalyi, they are fully immersed, with a singular focus on the game’s demands rather than the scoreboard. Team players know that standing on the sidelines and staring at the results board does not change the score; they are deep in the game. In business, a key observation is that being preoccupied with outcomes, for example, the profit and loss (P&L) and sales metrics, or saying results are needed won’t miraculously transform numbers. Strategic insight, action, and execution, drive and deliver results. Preparation and planning are a given. However, leading with purpose, exhibiting adaptability, and fostering a growth mindset and motivation are critical to team success.

Power of Shared Purpose and Belief System Can Propel Team towards Collective Success

Preparation, planning, and strategy in rugby are analogous to decision-making and planning in business. Often, coaches are heard saying, ‘‘It’s a must-win game’’, and business leaders say, ‘‘It’s a must-win deal’’. Yet, without a clear ‘‘how’’, such directives can leave players and employees puzzled. This outcome-focused approach requires an underpinning strategy that clarifies the process. It’s the ‘‘how‘’ – the game plan – that transforms a daunting challenge into a navigable path in the right direction. Moreover, whether on the pitch or in a boardroom, clarity of purpose guides our approach to action. This clarity aligns teams, enabling them to move as one towards their common goal.

The game of rugby is rife with business leadership lessons, ranging from preparation and planning, team alignment, visibility, and communication to how we face success and failure, which cultivate shared accountability and commitment among team members.

For leaders, understanding and communicating their purpose is not about providing direction; it’s about inspiring confidence and fostering an environment where each decision, each play, contributes to a larger vision. As a leader, purpose is not what you do; it’s ‘‘how’’ you do your job and ‘‘why’’ and the inherent strengths you bring to a business or sports team. In various realms, I recognise that my purpose is to empower and guide people to excel and reach their fullest potential. In pressurised environments, well-articulated purpose cuts through the noise, focusing hearts, minds and efforts. It’s the light that guides teams through ambiguity.

I joined the Henley rugby team after the tenure of Clive Woodward. As a team, we held regular sessions on building our game plans and defining our purpose. We had game plans dependent on certain conditions, for example, our opponents or the weather. Our purpose was to play entertaining rugby, and we had specific ideals to guide us. It was a way of bringing a team together. A strength in bonding teams around a belief system drives and energises a team, whether in rugby or business.

At Xerox, in a similar vein, our approach to leadership and strategy is based on collaboration and clarity of focus. Every year, I bring my team together to build our team strategy. We believe in the power of inclusivity and open discussion. In these sessions, we delve into our purpose and dissect key performance indicators (KPIs) and focus areas. The goal is to create a blueprint to guide us through the challenges and opportunities of the year ahead. It’s a one-page plan that encapsulates our strategy; it’s simple but effective because it’s easy to communicate and rally a business around.

In recent years, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, wellness emerged as a recurring theme brought up by our management team in our sessions. As a result, wellness now forms a key pillar of our business. We recognise that the well-being of employees is a fundamental cornerstone of success. By elevating wellness to a key pillar, we’ve made a clear statement about our commitment to the health of our employees.

Adaptability on and off the Pitch

Bicester Rugby Club
Bicester Rugby Club: planning and performance.

Powerful teams adapt to the situation in front of them. Most of the situations we face in business or rugby are foreseeable. Great rugby teams and companies have contingency plans for various predictable scenarios. Sports teams and companies must have their antennae finely tuned to signals of change from the external environment, decode them, and quickly adapt or refine their play or business strategy.

For example, in rugby, a team may not play well, not get a quick ball, or the referee’s decision goes against them, and it’s raining and slowing them down. These factors could stop a team from playing at a desired tempo, but they’re foreseeable events. If you’ve planned and trained as a team and tuned into these signals, it makes sense to revert to an adapted game plan. I have played in teams that have changed tactics to turn a slow ball into a quick ball, playing tighter to the forwards to gain control before you try and expand in the wider channels again – being deliberate in making changes in the heat of a game and as a collective is a decisive move.

Agile thinking is a competitive advantage in sports and business amidst dynamic environments. However, teams require rules to facilitate interaction, help individuals make trade-offs and set boundaries for decision-making. Preparing others, understanding the game (or the market), and pivoting strategy with confidence at a moment’s notice is imperative.

Exceptional leaders and teams harness a growth mindset on and off the pitch. They quickly shift their attention to what can be controlled and changed to improve and resolve a situation.

In the business world, adaptability comes to the forefront when game-changing opportunities emerge. We recently encountered such an opportunity – a deal with the potential to reshape industries and set new benchmarks. We gathered together our pursuit team and selected individuals with unique strengths and expertise. We poured our collective knowledge and creativity into developing a solution that met and exceeded the brief. We were excited, but then reality struck that the solution didn’t meet the budget criteria set for the deal, and it was a moment of pause and reflection. We took this as an opportunity for growth and adaptation. We huddled and re-evaluated our strategy and began the process of refining it. This experience serves as a reminder that success in business and sport is rarely a straight line. Instead, it’s marked by twists and turns that demand flexibility and agile thinking.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset: Approaching Challenges and Controlling Reactions

 Bicester Rugby Club.
Darren Cassidy under pressure for Bicester Rugby Club.

How we respond to challenges and setbacks can significantly hamper our success. Assigning personal blame, viewing the situation as unfair, or pointing fingers at others can hinder the ability to address and overcome these challenges. In my experience, exceptional leaders and teams harness a growth mindset on and off the pitch. They quickly shift their attention to what can be controlled and changed to improve and resolve a situation.

As defined by Dweck, a growth mindset centres around the belief that we can grow our brain’s capacity for learning and problem-solving. It is considered a developable skill that supports adapting to dynamic environments. Such a mindset empowers individuals to control their responses and approach challenges effectively and proactively, serving them well personally and professionally.

Powerful teams adapt to the situation in front of them.

Today, organisations are constantly transforming, driven by societal and technological shifts. Cultivating a growth mindset is needed to create, lead and support change. For multiple generations, currently in the workplace, a growth mindset was not taught in school. Schools often prioritised and rewarded results over learning and progress, which is required today in many aspects of life and work.

To support teams within my organisation, I have collaborated with Gazing Performance, introducing their Red2Blue model, a mindset technique that empowers and supports developing mindset as a skill. In the Red2Blue model, ‘‘Red head’’ is the feeling of being tight, inhibited and anxious, whereas ‘‘Blue head’’ is calm, clear and accurate. The All Blacks New Zealand team even embraced this practical approach to mindset development in their 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cup preparations. The link between a growth mindset and the Red2Blue model lies in the latter’s ability to help individuals from a limiting “Red head’’ mindset to an empowering “Blue head’’ mindset aligning with the principles of growth, adaptability and proactive problem-solving. This technique can be instrumental in fostering a growth mindset required to thrive in an ever-changing world.

Motivating Teams in High-Pressure Environments:Recognising Individual Strengths and Fostering Collective Commitment

Henley Hawks Rugby Club
Henley Hawks Rugby Club: Heart, clarity of purpose, great coaching and teamwork on display.

As a captain on the pitch and a business leader, my core strength is motivating teams around a shared purpose in dynamic environments. Recognising the inherent diversity in individuals – their internal drivers in terms of goal-directed thoughts and behaviours – and the influence of external factors such as environment and team dynamics on their well-being, is critical. Understanding internal motivations (intrinsic factors such as personal passion and values) and external motivations (extrinsic factors such as recognition or rewards) can enhance overall team performance and help uncover that elusive extra percentage of effort that makes a substantial difference and changes the game. Understanding your team is non-negotiable. As a leader, you’re rolling up your sleeves and on the pitch with them. Leading from the front gives a crucial viewpoint.

In rugby and business, the parallels are undeniable, offering a trove of insights and strategies for achieving peak performance. The common thread across both domains is the power of shared purpose.

However, as a mentor wisely counselled me, this position requires balance. The ability to step back and zoom out is critical to ensuring sustainable performance for you and your team and checking that efforts are focused on vital tasks. This skill contributes to achieving long-term goals and overcoming challenges. We had a complex contract riddled with technical challenges and involved deploying devices in a highly secure environment. Gathering my team, I knew this endeavour was special. As their leader, I wanted them to understand that I saw them as individuals. I addressed the team, acknowledging the complexity of the task. At that moment, I emphasised our collective importance and each team member’s unique contributions. It’s not just a project but a testament to our collaborative capabilities. Recognising their individuality and valuing their expertise created a sense of unity and purpose.

In rugby and business, the parallels are undeniable, offering a trove of insights and strategies for achieving peak performance. The common thread across both domains is the power of shared purpose.

A rugby team rallies around a common goal, and businesses thrive when their teams are united by clarity and purpose. Purpose ignites confidence and fosters an environment where every decision contributes to a larger vision. Success hinges on seeing change on the horizon and pivoting and refining strategies as needed. Teams and companies that prepare for the unexpected can move swiftly in dynamic environments.

Cultivating a growth mindset empowers individuals and organisations to face challenges head-on and drive continuous improvement. Such a mindset is indispensable in business transformation and dynamic environments. Motivating teams is an art that requires understanding the motivations of individuals and the influence of external factors. Purpose, adaptability, mindset, and motivation propel teams and organisations in sports and business. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to embrace these principles and inspire our teams to reach their potential and guide them through the ever-changing landscape.

About the Author

Darren CassidyDarren Cassidy is the managing director for Xerox UK & Ireland and senior vice president for the Global Document Services business across Europe, the Middle East & Africa (EMEA). With 31 years of experience at Xerox, he has held various roles across Xerox Europe and Global, including direct sales management and leadership in channels, learning, and development. Darren’s expertise lies in delivering document services and digital transformation solutions across EMEA. He is a sports enthusiast, having played national league rugby and semi-professional football, and in recent years, he has embraced Transcendental Meditation (TM) as a dedicated practitioner.

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