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Leadership lessons from Paul O’Connell

February 10, 2016

The loss of Paul O’Connell will be keenly felt for Ireland. However it ends, I’ll feel lucky he once said about his career, but his forced retirement announced yesterday, due to a hamstring injury suffered at the World Cup last autumn, was a huge blow for himself and Ireland. He was their leader and talisman.

O’Connell suffered the injury in Ireland’s pool stage victory over France in October and was subsequently unable to captain his side in the quarter-final defeat by Argentina. The 36-year-old had already announced his intention to retire from international rugby after the World Cup but last summer, after more than 14 years with Munster, agreed a two-year deal with Toulon, only for his injury to deny him the chance to appear for the three-times defending European champions.

O’Connell, a ferocious second-row with 115 international caps, was an inspirational captain for Ireland during the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations championship-winning campaigns and in 2009 he was a key member of the so-called golden generation, alongside Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara, that won a first grand slam in 61 years.

He will be saluted throughout the game as a grafting, athletic, whole-hearted player. O’Connell set new standards in terms of conditioning for second-row forwards, forever pushing himself and those around him.

After seeing him crumple to the turf in agony back in October, and then hearing confirmation that his 108-cap career for Ireland is over, I felt a sudden regret we’d seen one of the true greats pass before us. We’ve seen a premature end to his marauding presence on the pitch.

For the past decade he has been a colossus of European and world rugby. Whether playing for and captaining Munster, Ireland or the British Lions, O’Connell has been a dominant presence at the heart of the scrum, the lineout and as a leader of every team who have followed him out of the tunnel.

Much like former England captain, Martin Johnson, O’Connell is a galvanising force when the spirit of those around him looks as if it might dip or flag. Having lead Ireland to successive Six Nations championships in 2015, he is Irelands’ third most capped player, the twelfth most capped player in rugby history. Not bad for someone who only started playing rugby aged 16.

A stalwart of Limerick and Muster, he aimed to spend the next two years of his playing career with Toulon. Now the final image we have of O’Connell is in the green shirt being wheeled away on a stretcher while offering the applauding crowd a thumbs-up to let them know he was all right, and to thank them for their support.

O’Connell has never given in without a fight. It is his defining quality. When all else is stripped back – his lineout prowess, the ferocity of his scrummaging, his octopus-like stretching arms over the maul, his work-rate, his rugby intellect – it is the fierce, elemental nature of his play that sets him apart. He gave it his all, from first whistle to last.

That has been ‘Paulie’ for the last 14 years, uncompromising, committed, a colossus. In the pantheon of great Irish players in my playing and spectating lifetime, O’Connell stands alongside Brian O’Driscoll, Keith Wood, Ronan O’Gara and Fergus Slattery as people that made the team.

O’Connell’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 a second row. He is always there in the mix, leading by being there right on the shoulder of a teammate in the thick of the action.

Being captain in the frenetic and unrelenting pace of international rugby, demands discipline, clarity and focus. So what are O’Connell’s key attributes and traits as captain that we can take as leadership attributes in today’s business environment?

Mental strength & emotional discipline The captain needs to remain focused and alert whilst thinking and making decision under pressure during a game, so that he makes 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 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 their respective roles in the team. He studies his teammates’ skills, he recognises what they are capable of doing and utilises his teammates’ 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!

The leader creates the team spirit 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 leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.

Positive mind set and winning attitude: lead by example Morale is linked to success, and it’s your job as the team leader to instill motivation by positive energy and attitudes, and a winning belief, especially when times are tough. A leader is a dealer in hope – keep the belief.

Good teams have to come from behind sometimes. They know what to do. There may be times 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. As O’Connell shows, a great leader’s courage to fulfil his vision comes from passion, not position.

The successful Ireland team had plenty about them in terms of talent, skills and tactical nous, but so much more besides in terms of mental toughness, resilience and the ability to turn up when it matters, playing and being in the image of O’Connell. It is undoubtedly in them all, but in that moment of potential crisis, it took O’Connell’s leadership to remind them and give them a clear head. He was utterly relentless. When it comes to drive and desire, his levels are off the scale.

Nothing gives you more advantage in the heat of competition as to remain unruffled and think clearly. Composure is the product of an ambitious mentality envisioning the outcome we would aspire. It requires persistence, vision, self-belief and patience. Being persistent requires constant thinking and developing an agile plan to accomplish our goals as the situation changes – a plan doesn’t require detailed steps, rather it guides our actions to ensure we are always progressing towards accomplishing our goals.

As in sport, it’s the same in business, the ability to remain composed is vital, the capacity to make the right decisions when under pressure differentiates leaders in good times and bad. Composure is a telling factor in performance whether it contributes to the scoreboard or the bottom-line. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm, but in the frenzy of the storm, holding your nerve, keeping focus and stopping the blood rushing to the head enable you to put your training into practice.

Leader, motivator, thinker. Paul O’Connell’s mental strength was his greatest power.

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