The Making of a Leader: Big-Picture Thinking

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In the first of three extracts we’re publishing from his new book, The Making of a Leader: What Elite Sport Can Teach Us About Leadership, Management and Performance, Tom Young assesses how sports leaders balance long-term ambitions with the week-to-week need to get results on the field. The Making of a Leader is published on 30th July and is available for pre-order now.

The concepts of legacy and purpose are important and admirable pursuits, but all of the leaders I interviewed were acutely aware of the need to balance the big picture with a more immediate focus on the unavoidable requirement of elite sport: achieving results. In 2015, the then-head coach of England Rugby Union, Stuart Lancaster, prophetically acknowledged that ‘people won’t give a stuff about the legacy or anything else beyond the World Cup – if I don’t do well then someone else will be coaching this team’.

He described the ‘interesting moral dilemma’ he faced when supporting the policy not to select foreign-based players for England duty. ‘When you are desperate to carry on in the role, when you know you are on the cusp of developing a great team, but you also know you might lose your opportunity because of results and if someone could come in and enhance results, would you pick them?’

At the end of that sentence, he shrugged his shoulders, an indication of the genuine conflict he faced in that scenario. He knows that, on the outside, his job is simply to ‘win rugby games’ but in his own mind ‘it is winning in the short term but keeping one eye on the future to win in the long term as well. A lot of my decisions are based around what is going to be good for us in the long term as well as the short term.’ Lancaster’s comments may lead you to think he is stubborn or idealistic in his approach. Alternatively, you might see a selflessness and a desire to do what is best for the team, despite the potential ramifications for him as the leader.

Ashley Giles, director of cricket at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), spoke about a key learning experience in this area. As part of his academic qualification in sports directorship, he attended a presentation given by a senior police officer. The speaker recalled his experience of working under extreme pressure in the emergency services and highlighted the need to simultaneously keep a watchful eye on both the long- and short-term results. Giles recalls that the police officer showed a picture of the penny-farthing, an old bicycle with one big wheel and one smaller wheel, to the group and initially Giles wondered what on earth the message could be.

At first I was thinking, ‘What is all this about?’, but it was brilliant. It hit home for me, these two wheels. The big wheel was the long-term plan, [it] moves much slower, but at the same time you have got this little wheel spinning quickly and that is about action now, delivering, winning tomorrow.

Putting this into a specific sporting context, Giles went on to discuss the impact this can have on team selection. ‘Although one player might be a player for the future, for the next game I need another bloke to play. “Sorry mate, you might just have to miss out.” It will give me more time and therefore give you more time, all part of our legacy.’

The image of the penny-farthing used by the police officer is compelling in illustrating the duality of leadership. The contrasting forces of results versus purpose represent a never-ending balancing act for the leader. In the example above, Giles’ awareness of this push and pull allows him to make a decision that, in his own mind at least, maintains this balance.

Gary Kirsten, former head coach of the Indian and South African cricket teams, talks about his approach to achieving a balance between long-term and short-term success, searching for steady wins to keep the ‘wolf from the door’:

There is always going to be that focus on results. So, for me the key is twofold. One is to manage upwards so you need to build good relationships with your owners. The other is you need to continue to have small wins along the way. You need to stay in the mix. You need to be performing. You might not be performing to the level that you want but you have got to get those little wins along the way to keep the wolf from the door.

He reflects on his situation at the time of our interview, as head coach of the IPL franchise the Delhi Daredevils, and reiterates his commitment to achieving that sense of purpose:

Obviously, the results become important in the end because that is where, for many, your credibility sits. I have got that now. We have tried to introduce a new system and a new way of doing things in terms of our identity and our culture which we are only building now and trying to establish but we haven’t backed it up with a massive amount of results, so there are always question marks. You are always trying to re-establish and realign and re-evaluate and bring in new resource into that bigger purpose space. It can be incredibly difficult to manage it, so again it’s buying time as much as you can, it’s quick wins, it’s managing upwards.

You might have short term-success, but it is not going to be sustainable because people will start, once they’ve had a little bit of success, taking advantage and start using the system for their own purpose. But if they are constantly under the vision of a bigger purpose, greater than their own individual glory, then I think you can hold people for longer. You can have a hugely talented bunch of individuals, but if you think you can take shortcuts because they’re talented and they’re going to win games . . . they might do it for a while but it’s not sustainable.

Building an enduring culture or legacy in a competitive, results-based environment is definitely not easy, but the benefit of this approach can be the rare and revered levels of stability, trust and long-term success.

The Making of a Leader is published by Robinson and available to pre-order now.