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Can the creation of leadership groups benefit the overall culture of an organisation?

Richie Williams, Director of Rugby at Cambridge RFC

After experiencing an enjoyable but sometimes challenging maiden season at Cambridge RFC in 2018, I feel that I learned a number of valuable leadership and management lessons which have helped shape and revitalise our environment. Due to our lowly league position towards the end of the season, the majority of our focus became outcome-focussed as opposed to process-driven. Other external influences and pressures from stakeholders caused us to lose sight of our values and as a result, our environment became fractured. Fortunately, we managed to survive relegation and despite the frustrations, there were some major developments and growth in a number of our players.

I believe that one of the key factors in our survival was the emergence of 2 or 3 key leaders from the group. These leaders or ‘Cultural Architects’ as Damian Hughes refers to them in his book ‘The Barcelona Way’ became our ‘leaders without authority’.

They were able to influence, motivate and engage others on a daily basis. Their major drive was to excel on a personal level, do a good job and ensure that the organisation continued to succeed. Their role was critical in supporting our environment. They were also able to act as a conduit between management and the wider playing group.

​The book ‘Shared Leadership’, edited by Craig Pearce and Jay Conger, describes this shift in leadership concepts. Chapter 2 by Joyce Fletcher and Katrin Käufer, titled ‘Shared Leadership: Paradox and Possibility’, provides an excellent conceptual introduction. Shared leadership models propose that success in knowledge-based environments, where complex problem-solving is required, depends less on the heroic actions of a few individuals at the top and more on interdependent, co-ordinated leadership practices distributed throughout an organization. Group members hold different capabilities that are potentially of value in producing jointly desired outcomes.

Through a combination of my own reflections and augmented by feedback from both the management team and players alike, we decided to invest greater focus and attention on our leadership models and structures. We wanted the leadership group to ‘infect others’ at the club.


For this process to evolve, there needed to be a better understanding of shared leadership and the positive impact that it could have. To support this notion, it was critical that our environment was both supportive and flexible enough to house the sharing and collaboration of ideas.


After careful research and consideration, we decided to look at, adapt and grow our current player leadership group. One of our aims at Cambridge Rugby Club is to create a positive player-led environment where players set and drive the team values. We wanted the leadership group to become integral in supporting the coaching team in working towards the vision that we wanted to create: to become the most progressive and supportive environment in National 1.

Collective leadership is still an emerging field so there is no common definition. It is about embracing and marshalling human, cultural and technological resources in ways that enable members of a group to be motivated by a common purpose to build relationships with each other that are genuinely respectful enough to allow them to co-construct their shared purpose.

To contextualise, it took me a number of years of being a head coach to be able to ‘relinquish responsibility’ and trust others around me. I also found this challenging when results were poor or the team were experiencing a dip in performance. ‘Leadership Teams’ have existed in numerous forms both in sport and business for a number of years. For me, one of the difficulties was selecting the right people that would align themselves to our values and behaviours. Fortunately for us, we were able to identify a number of strong candidates that surfaced during our difficult season in 2018. We were really aware of the composition of the group; taking into account, age demographic, experience, playing position and also personality type. The key component for us in the identification phase were trust and honesty.

We wanted the players to be comfortable having difficult conversations with the management team and vice versa. We were also extremely mindful of the perception from the wider playing group who weren’t in the leadership group. Through some trial and error, we decided to appoint 6 leaders to the group and introduce a ‘floating position’ that would change on a monthly basis. We thought that this would support the view of transparency throughout the team. The group consisted of 3 players that were centurions at the club, 2 new players and 1 player that was in his first season of senior rugby after coming through the club’s playing pathway.

Practically, we would have informal conversations on a weekly basis and try to encourage these ‘casual collisions’. We would then meet formally on a monthly basis in a ‘think tank’ to discuss a number of areas including, training session content, game plan and wider club engagement. A fortunate by-product of these regular connections, were better and more enhanced connections between the whole playing group and management group.

I was really interested to find some theoretical evidence to support our good practice. Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence’, states that sharing leadership demands emotional intelligence. Leaders who are strong in several of these six emotional intelligence competencies will be more effective when leading collaboratively.

Emotional Self-Awareness

Being aware of your own emotions and how they impact your actions offers a strong platform for leading yourself. And in shared leadership such self-awareness allows you to recognize how your colleagues’ actions impact you.

Emotional Self-Control

Once you’re aware of your emotions, you can better manage what you do with them. Self-control allows you to pause before responding. You may feel angry at the actions of your co-leader or frustrated with their perspective. Self-control helps you choose whether or how to express those feelings with skill.

Adaptability

When you’re sharing leadership, it helps to be able to adapt to styles and strategies that may be different from what you would do if you were leading on your own. Adaptability means that you can remain focused on the goal while remaining flexible in what tactics you use to achieve that goal.

Empathy

While self-awareness allows you to understand your own feelings, empathy shines a light on your co-leaders’ perspective. So often, in shared leadership situations we have to coordinate with someone we don’t know well. Empathy allows you to understand your co-leaders’ feelings and how their background impacts their perspective.

Organisational Awareness

Leaders always need to recognize the big picture of their organization and its culture and power relationships, as well as what’s going on between its parts. Shared leadership situations, especially those that cross organizational or division boundaries, require that the leaders understand the dynamics within and between each organization and division.

Conflict Management

Conflict is a given in all work settings and seems inevitable when two or more people share leadership. To be effective in their collaboration, leaders need be skilled at acknowledging and understanding different perspectives, and capable of finding common ground.

We tried to focus our collective energies on all of the above competencies and searched for practical ways that they could be implemented into what we were trying to do. A good example was exploring ‘conflict management’. At any level of coaching, team selection can sometimes be the catalyst for conflict. With the help of the leadership group, we devised a clear selection protocol that came from a result of player feedback. All feedback would be honest and include where possible, evidence and an action plan. This alleviated some of the potential spikes in conflict during the season.

There are critics of shared leadership who argue that highly creative driven people are better at working as individuals rather than as members of teams (Locke 2002: 271-284). The ‘Leadership Teams’ model which has become the trendy thing for sporting organisations to put in place is becoming increasingly under challenge for several reasons including:

  • Players not in the leadership team, will often pass the responsibility for their own standards and behaviours to the leadership team

  • Clubs rarely invest anywhere near enough time or money into developing the leadership abilities of all the individuals in the leadership team

  • Inevitably, some individuals on the leadership team find loopholes in the system with the end result of feeling they do not have to play by the same rules as the rest of the team

  • There is no evidence that having a leadership team makes a difference on on-field performance. It makes sense to have players ‘leading’ the decision making on-field in the heat of battle as this is an important part of all team sports. But teams have won and will win titles without the benefit of a great leadership group.

Teams are not always high performing and shared leadership is not without its problems. There will be conflict. There will be disagreements about direction, who has the most influence and the implementation of decisions. These conflicts need to be positively harnessed, as they will allow creative thinking to develop and progress to be made. The trick is that the conflict needs to be managed by the whole team in an open way involving direct discussion.

Extract from The Cambridge News

Where next?

​To summarise, I personally feel that the creation of leadership groups can have a hugely positive impact on the success of an organisation. For it to work, there needs to be a clear understanding that collaboration and support are the keys. Everyone in the organisation needs to feel valued and understand what their purpose is. For a coach or manager, it is important to realise the selection and support of the group is just the starting point. There needs to be continued investment from the organisation and an understanding of why the group is in place. The character and personality traits within the group must complement one another and they must realise that they are one of the catalysts to drive things forward.

Our group was a success last season as it allowed us to develop greater depth and breadth in our leadership capabilities. It provided previously ‘inexperienced’ leaders with the opportunity to lead and support each other on and off the field. Despite still having a fairly young playing group, the continuous development and investment that the club has made in the leadership group will hopefully provide direction and cohesion moving forwards. It’s also paramount that the integrated relationship among the off-field work of the leadership group (player ownership, accountability and self-reliant player decision-making) can also contribute to the on-field leadership. While the team has one captain there are a number of on-field leaders, each of whom know his role within the team structure.

We would like to continue to develop the group and give them as many opportunities as possible to grow. We will continue to focus on Daniel Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence’ model and support the players through their leadership journeys. We will also explore the idea of external stakeholders collaborating with the group and offering recommendations on how we can maximise theirs and the whole team’s potential.

I now fully subscribe to the notion that leadership is shared within our team: The coach, the team captain, and the informal athlete leaders are together taking the lead on the different leadership roles. These findings thus propose a radical shift from our traditional vertical view on leadership (in which the coach is viewed as the primary leader in the team) to the idea of shared leadership (in which the coach together with the team captain and the informal leaders take the lead). We still have a long way to go, but are prepared to continue and support this concept and its wider club benefits.

Some recommended background reading from Inspiring Coaching:

  • The Barcelona Way: Unlocking the DNA of a Winning Culture - Damien Hughes

  • Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ – Daniel Goleman

  • The Culture Code: The Secrets of High Successful Groups – Daniel Coyle

  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change – Stephen R. Covey

  • Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t – Simon Sinek

  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t – Jim Collins





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