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Leadership lessons from Cuthbert Ottaway and Richie McCaw

August 26, 2013

The recent renewal of the England v Scotland football match, the oldest competitive international fixture, brought the name of Cuthbert Ottaway to my attention. He was England’s first football captain, a man of breath-taking sporting ability and versatility, and strong leadership qualities.

Ottaway first established himself as a sportsman at Eton. He won championships in rackets (a predecessor to squash) and played the Eton field game (their version of football). Subsequently, he went to Brasenose College Oxford, gaining ‘Blues’ in five different sports – athletics, rackets, real tennis, cricket and football – which remains an Oxford record.

Ottaway’s sporting genius reached its zenith in 1872. Following his 150-run partnership with W.G. Grace, the sporting superstar of the day, in a Gentlemen v Players match – the highest level of cricket at the time – he was invited to take part in a ‘Gentlemen of England’ tour of North America. Effectively, it was an invitation to play for the national cricket team. In the first game he made nine stumpings and shared in a 100-run opening partnership.

During this time, football was emerging and Ottaway was appointed England’s captain for the first ever international football match against Scotland, on 30 November 1872. Thereafter, Ottaway lifted the FA Cup, captaining Oxford University to a 2-0 win over the Royal Engineers, and captained the University in their first varsity football match against Cambridge. In 1875, he played in his third consecutive FA Cup final, this time for Old Etonians, against Royal Engineers.

Ottaway suffered a bad injury in that game and never played football again, and focused on his career as a barrister. Then, on 2 April 1878, at the age of just 28, he died from pneumonia, caught on a night out dancing. A tragic end for a talented sportsman, and an outstanding team captain.

Another great captain in the same mould is All Blanks flanker Richie McCaw, who many regard as the greatest rugby player of all time. He recently returned from a sabbatical, as the All Blacks opened the Rugby Championship with a commanding six-try 47-29 victory over Australia, followed up with a 27-16 victory this weekend.

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 awarded Man of the Match. He was subsequently selected as New Zealand’s first choice openside flanker for the 2003 World Cup and became a regular selection, only missing a few games due to reoccurring concussions.

In 2006 he was appointed 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 at the after-match press conference: 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 during the 2011 World Cup tournament, McCaw inspired his teammates and the nation, playing on virtually one leg after suffering a debilitating ankle injury. On 23 October 2011, McCaw led his team to the World Champions title, beating France 8–7 in the final.

In 2012, after the win against South Africa, McCaw became the first rugby union player to win 100 tests – while having only lost 12 games. McCaw, quite incredibly, achieved 100 test wins out of 112 tests played, a staggering 89.28% winning ratio – he has been on the winning side in 9 out of every 10 tests he has played. Today’s he’s the most capped All Blacks captain, and captained the team more than any other captain.

McCaw’s record is as astounding as it is remarkable. His leadership is unquestionable, his playing ability is envied and judged to be the epitome of an openside flanker. He is the captain of the most scrutinised rugby team in the world with the harshest supporter base being that of an entire rugby mad nation. McCaw is always there in the mix, leading by being there right on the shoulder of a teammate in the thick of the action.

Winning leaders in successful sports teams offer valuable insights into the necessary qualities for leading business teams. The frenetic and unrelenting pace of competitive sport demands the same discipline, clarity and focus, so what are Ottaway’s and McCaw’s key attributes and traits as winning sport captains that we can consider in today’s commercial environment?

Mental strength & emotional discipline: thinking correctly under pressure. The captain 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 ensures the team continues to move forward. Conviction based decision making is key. A good plan executed with passion now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

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 of their respective roles in the team. He studies his teammates’ skills, he recognises what they are capable of doing and utilises their abilities. 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 so it is essential to creating an organised and efficient business team via delegation. 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. I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, 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.

Harnessing and channelling the energies of a coherent and dedicated team is the only true path to success. 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 and shows empathy. 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 rough 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 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.

If you expect your team to work hard and produce quality, you’re going to need to lead by example. 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.

Humility, honesty & integrity Whatever ethical plane you hold for yourself, when you are responsible for a team of people its essential you raise the bar even higher. Display 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. Integrity requires that you always tell the truth, to all people, in every situation. Truthfulness is the foundation quality of the trust that is necessary for the success of any team or business. 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. It means that 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, you exhibit the attitude that you can learn from anyone at any time. Your pride doesn’t get in the way. It doesn’t keep you from sharing the credit that needs to be shared. Humility allows you to acknowledge your mistakes. A great leader is not a self-promoting narcissist but one dedicated to the team to the utmost of their ability.

A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.

Effective leadership includes the four qualities highlighted above. It’s not about making speeches or being liked, the key to being a successful leader is influence, not authority, respect not profile. As McCaw shows, a great leader’s courage to fulfil his vision comes from passion, not position.

A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd. We live in a society obsessed with social media and publicity, but leadership is not about popularity. As Ottaway and McCaw both show, 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.

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