Six lessons business leaders could learn from rugby

Rugby enjoys a notoriously rough reputation. But as the RBS 6 Nations kicks off, can it teach leaders anything about good business?

2009 British & Irish Lions Tour

It’s hard to imagine a worse fit for a model of good boardroom behavior than the rugby pitch. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

Of course, a business can have lots in common with any team sport — sports metaphors pervade business jargon, and with good reason. But does rugby have any unique characteristics that set it above the pack when it comes to furnishing leaders with business lessons?

Respect the rules

There’s an undeniable air of self-satisfaction when rugby fans claim, usually in the face of their soccer-supporting peers, that theirs is “a thug’s game played by gentleman” (in comparison with soccer, “a gentleman’s game played by thugs”). 

But if there is one way in rugby that players can claim they are the most genteel in comparison with other sports, it’s in their constant respect for the referee. Seeing a 6’8” wall of muscle brought to mumbling contrition by a shorter, smaller man with a whistle can be inspiring. But rugby’s respect for the rules and their administrators, no matter how much they might disagree with a particular ruling, is one of the key ways in which it can distinguish itself from other, more argumentative sports.

Lots of organizations like to think of themselves as rule breakers, or have fostered organizational horizontalism, where traditional relationships between boss and worker are broken down. But respect for lines of command and rules and regulations is also needed. Understanding when and how to be polite, and how to not lose your head over perceived slights is just as important a lesson as learning when to strike out on your own. And while compliance with the rules may sometimes be a burden, with the right attitude, it can be a driver of innovative new ideas.  

Crisis management

Rugby and American football are obvious sporting relatives. Both share a common ancestor, both emphasize carrying the ball forward in hands and kicking for goal, and both are full-on, contact sports.

But where in American football the clock stops after every play for players to regroup and discuss tactics, in rugby, the clock only stops for injury. 

When a business hits a crisis, like a major cyber breach, there’s no time for play to stop, medics to rush on and bottles of water to be dispensed to exhausted executives. Leadership means responding to crises as and when they happen, whether or not that gives time for composure.

The best rugby players aren’t necessarily the fastest, strongest or the most agile players, although these qualities certainly help, but often the ones who can understand the layout of the field in the moment, coordinate efforts across the team accordingly and make tough decisions under pressure.

Decision-making

A good business leader needs to be like a good scrum-half (the player who orchestrates the speedy backs and forward pack, and whose immediate decisions dominate play tactics) — they need to understand the strengths of all the players on the field and bind together diverse functions in one reactive, organic whole. 

But play can change quickly, and rugby demands snap decisions from every player on the pitch. Do you offload or take the ball into the tackle? Do you commit to the ruck or make yourself available for the next play? Take a penalty or play on through advantage? Every second requires balancing options and picking the best outcome from every player.

Some sports rely heavily on the physical talents of individual players. In rugby, snap decisions can change everything for the whole team. Versatile, resilient organizations demand the same. 

Shifting strategies

Unlike some sports, rugby is not a game of rapid back-and-forth — it is more like a war of attrition where every yard of ground gained towards the try line has to be earned with often literal blood, sweat and tears.

But that doesn’t mean swift change can’t happen. A gap in enemy defenses, a mistimed tackle or an unpredictable ball bounce can open up massive opportunities. If a team is able to quickly assess the changing state of play, and move with the agility and speed to take advantage of the break, this can turn a game entirely. And with up to seven points available for a try, even a significant lag can become a tight race within minutes.

Growing a business can be the same — a lot of punishment early on, for seemingly little gain. Only by gritting your teeth and getting stuck in can you make meaningful progress — but you also need to be ready to move fast when opportunity presents itself. Businesses that can be the first to see a shifting marketplace or identify a gap, and move with speed are often the ones that succeed.

Team playing, rugby style

Another telling point of comparison with American football, with important business implications, is the degree of player specialization in each game.

American football breeds a certain type of player — its big players are very big, and its fast players are very fast. Due to its stop-start nature, players can be swapped out between phases to allow those with specific individual talents to be brought onto the pitch to help with one particular play.

In rugby, however, where players have more freedom to move around the pitch, substitutions are more limited and injuries common, everyone on the team needs to be good at everything. While few of the big players are as big, or the fast players as fast, a back (traditionally the ones that do the running) should be able to deliver a powerful tackle, and a forward (the muscle at the front, largely responsible for smashing defenses) should be able to run and dodge with the ball. Every team, and every organization, needs its specialists, its talents who can do what they can do better than others. But functions don’t exist on their own. The very best team players, whether on the pitch or in the office, need to be able to understand an entire context and have the skills and know-how to step in where needed. 

The importance of diversity
    
Any leader worth his or her salt knows how important diversity is in building a dynamic team. The British & Irish Lions — which brings together the best male players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales once every four years, and who, this year, will be taking on the double World Champions in New Zealand from June to July — are a great example of diverse skills in action.

By taking the best players from teams that only weeks before were fiercely competing against each other for their respective nations, the best Lions coaches — like the best business leaders — can build teams that combine the strengths of some of the best players in the world.

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