Warren Gatland: Rugby’s effective answer to charismatic leadership

June 26, 2013

Warren GatlandThe Lion’s tour of Australia has thrust their coach Warren Gatland into the media spotlight. His appearance and actions demonstrate that effectiveness in a leader does not necessarily require a charismatic style

Warren Gatland has appeared in literally hundreds of news items during the Lion’s rugby tour of Australia. Dozens of commentators have offered their views of his strategic decisions. I have not come across any that have implied he is a charismatic leader. Nor had I come across severe criticism of the effectiveness of his decision-making in the areas of team selection and match preparation and tactics until the announcement [2nd July 2013] of the team to play the final and series-determining test match.

Effective and non-charismatic

That leads me to conclude that he is widely perceived as both highly effective and non-charismatic. Someone surfing the Leaders We Deserve site recently was searching for evidence that Gatland might be transactional in leadership style. He can show both transactional and transformational elements in his comments about players and their motivations.

His low-key press performances suggest that he is has an uncomplicated way of understanding the needs of his players which avoids the dangers of showing favouritism. This was important, because Gatland had coached the successful Welsh squad to success prior to the tour, and will resume duties after it. Journalists from the other Rugby playing countries England, Scotland and the combined Irish territories might have hinted at favouritism in selection. Gatland’s frank press conferences may have contributed to avoiding that criticism. The evidence is that he has largely addressed the dangers of demotivated ‘second class citizens’ playing only in the provincial games. This has bedevilled earlier tours including the one coached by [Sir] Clive Woodward.

Kicking out the box

I don’t like to capture leadership style as a fixed and unitary trait. Style is better (in my judgement) treated as a description of an important pattern of behaviour that may change with circumstances. That incidentally is the basis of situational leadership theory which suggests just that, offering style as variable according to circumstances or contingencies. Beware of boxing people into one fixed style of behaviour.

Level five leadership

I have written in the past about level five leaders in sport, a term attributed to Jim Collins. The theory is that charismatics have powerful influencing skills, but tend to be tripped up by their own ego. Level five leadership has been described as demonstrated by those who show fierce resolve with less intrusion of personal ego. Which may suit what we have seen of Warren Gatland recently. But I hope that assessment is not the same as putting him into a conceptual box.

I write this still uncertain if the Lions will win the three match test series. The outcome will not impact on the evidence of Gatland’s effectiveness or style.

Hero to zero?

The Warren Gatland story hit the headlines internationally through his selection decisions for the final test. The series decider took place after a one-point loss by the Lions in the second match. Gatland made several changes. These would have been controversial as the starting XV contained no Scottish representatives and ten players from Wales the country Gatland now coaches. But the most shocking omission was that of BOD (Brian O’Driscoll) Irish legend who would have been playing in hist last Lions test match. Gatland, it is worth noticing, was a successful coach of Ireland’s national team in the past. He had noticed and nurtured O’Driscoll’s great talent.

The selection was widely criticized, provoking bitterness and anger in the judgements of such authorities as Sottish commentator Ian Robertson, and by former Irish commentator Keith Wood. I found the hundreds of comments in web-discussion sites both depressing and enlightening. Fury and anger was directed towards Gatland. The most widespread comments were that he was an inept decision-maker, following a dubious strategy which involved picking his ‘own’ Welsh players. (Gatland is from New Zealand, incidentally, the country most fiercely competitive against Australia.). One more balanced comment reminded us that Gatland is notoriously unsentimental in his decision-making. At the start of the Lion’s tour he left behind Sean Edwards, his [English} coach to the Welsh team’s backs. Edwards Felt ‘gutted’ about the decision.

The most revealing comments indicate that Gatland should be judged on whether the Lions win the final test. I have explained above why I think that is a poor way of assessing a leader’s capabilities. But I welcome comments from LWD subscribers.


Jim Mallinder hints at England’s rugby future … and its past

November 19, 2011

Jim Mallinder is currently front-runner to replace Martin Johnson as England’s chief coach of Rugby. His Northampton Saints team yesterday displayed the strengths and weaknesses of England’s recent international performances

The Saints began their Heineken Cup campaign with their coach Jim Mallinder tipped as a replacement for Martin Johnson. It was inevitable that closer comparisons are being made between the style of Northampton under Mallinder and England under Johnson.

Sean Edwards backs Mallinder

I watched Northampton play the Scarlets yesterday [18th Nov 2011]. Before the [Sky] transmission, Sean Edwards offered positive views on Mallinder. Edwards had several qualifications for offering his opinions. He is an important part of the coaching squad which helped produce the currently successful Welsh national team.

The match

The match was an interesting one if deeply flawed with technical errors. I was struck by the similarities in style of the Northants team and England’s teams since before their glorious World Cup victory led by Martin Johnson and coached by Clive Woodward, nearly two decades ago.

Plan A

Plan A for The Saints (and England) is establishing dominance through powerful forwards. When it works it is very effective.

Not ‘one side playing, the other clapping’

But Rugby like other sports is not case of one side playing and the other clapping. As in game theory, any strategy interacts with that of the opponents. The Dragons arrived with leading members of the Welsh squad including Rhys Priestland and George North.

Plan A for the Scarlets is to rely on a young, strong and talented back division which can overcome limited possession against the strongest forward s of opposing teams. Much the same can be said of the Welsh international team at present.

When Plan A doesn’t work…

When Plan A doesn’t work, (often in hindsight) a different plan is called for. Plan A was expected to work for Northampton partly because they rarely lose at home. Their track record internationally is better than the Scarlets over a period of years.

Plan A seemed to be working for the Saints, as The Scarlets struggled to win ball from the scrums. But Northampton could not execute the plan. It could be said that the plan was fine, and it was its execution that failed. Much the same is said by disappointed strategists in business. In any event, there is always a need for a plan that can be implemented…

After the match, the inquests

After the match, the inquests:

Northampton Saints rugby director Jim Mallinder: “I think we were well beaten. I’m very disappointed with the way that we played. Scarlets came here and kicked very well and we didn’t handle that. We turned over too much ball and didn’t play the conditions as well as they did.”

Scarlets coach Nigel Davies: “We had to play a very good game of rugby to get a result here and that is what we did. This is pretty big against a side of Northampton’s quality. I don’t think they have lost a European encounter at home since 2007 so it is a big scalp for us. We have to build the momentum. The big thing has been belief, believing we can come to places like this.”

Like country like club?

Am I reading too much into the evidence of one game? As a student of management rather than rugby I guess so. But Northampton Plan A could be at least a metaphor for England Plan A. Even in losing, the Saints showed considerable muscular talent. The game last night at least goes some way to explain why Jim Mallinder is tipped as a future England coach. It may even explain why so often we get the leaders we deserve.