What can we learn from the Connacht Pro12 victory gleaned from the wonderful team culture and leadership put together by Pat Lam?
Lets be clear, this was a massive upset. For a team that has finished in the bottom half of the table over the last number of years, to finish as Pro12 winners was an incredible feat. To get past teams in the run-in who were not weakened, as they sometimes are, by representation in the final stages of the European Cup was also incredible. They caught the eye of all the rugby playing nations with their style and passion as well as their success. As an auld Connacht rugby player myself it was emotional… “no no no I just have something in my eye…”
Was this a team full of stars? – No – but stars emerged nonetheless. Leaders were all over the pitch. Taking responsibility, making decisions, showing example. Rather than picking players who shone in this way, try to name a player who did not – it is very difficult. They played for the guy next to them, for the crowd, for their community, their legacy. When the injury toll was high others slotted in, stepped up and played as if they had been there all season.
How does a team achieve all this? By leveraging the maximum they could from the potential of high performance teamwork. Where the sum is truly greater than the parts. Looking at the players on the pitch, with their interchangeable roles and their ability to change tactics on the move, acting in synch, one can see the purity of the team mindset.
It started with a Vision. Pat Lam set their targets and went after them – from there deciding the training, process and style of play that would garner the required performance. Look after the performance and the results look after themselves.
Humility and Service
Stories emerged early in Pat Lams tenure that he had the players up early in the morning and out sweeping the streets of Galway to get them to understand their community a bit more and to show service to their community was a priority. Understanding service is key to good leadership and good teams. It help all the individuals understand the team is the priority. Studies show that a team without egos and with the language of co-operation performs under pressure. They are always looking for solutions rather than to blame.
In a famous line from the end of the movie Black Hawk Down, Hoot, one of the rangers explains “They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.” Great teams understand this. Great rugby defences understand this too! The ability to trust the guy next to you, to trust your coach and to trust the system was all key to success. One story emerged after the final game, that the players chipped in to make sure 4 players that had trained with them during the year but had not played were also able to travel to Edinburgh with the team. Leave no man behind indeed.
Agility and Autonomy
During the games one could see that the players were adapting to the defence in front of them. Adapting to the moves of the opposition. This allowed the team to make decisions under pressure without fear. Rigid systems in rugby tend to have the players thinking only about the system, blind to the moves of their opposition. Similarly bureaucratic organisations whose adoption of change can be torturously slow. Agile autonomous teams can make decisions because they do not fear trying things and making mistakes. Because they are empowered to do so. Players would often go to Pat Lam after matches and say “sorry for that Pat” and he would reply – “well what did you learn from it?” It is also critical with empowerment that the required skills are there so that the team members can take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. This too was part of the plan and part of the training.
Joy in the game
When we enjoy what we do we jump out of bed in the morning, looking forward to the day. The style of joyous rugby being played by Connacht and the passion engendered by being part of something bigger than themselves improved commitment and workrate and added a meter of pace (or a bounce in the step) to players. The mindset is so important in rugby. So too in organisations. Home and away results show the importance of this. Its the same size pitch with the same posts so whats different?
I remember in the early nineties, the Sportsground held far more greyhound races than rugby matches. Connacht players played with passion but mostly on the losing side and travelled long nights on dark roads, often the rain to scrummaging or training sessions in Athlone and similar venues. We had then a raucous, faithful but small crowd watching the games in one isolated stand. Connacht have come so far since then – its incredible. One commentator put it well – “from dog track to top dog”…. indeed.
Aidan Higgins BE MBA of ADEO Consulting is a Leadership, Emotional Intelligence and Teamwork specialist working with Leaders and Teams in Ireland and the UK. He has over 25 years experience working in various capacities with individuals, teams and organisations of all sizes.