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Leadership and emotional intelligence – on the sportsfield

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I’m not particularly sporty and I don’t follow rugby, but I have trained rugby players in coaching skills and seen them apply those tools to their playing and coaching on the field.  I’m also very inspired by seeing the people of New Zealand rising above the huge challenge of having survived two major earthquakes in the last year and for the event to go ahead at all.  Congratulations to everyone who put so much into making that happen.

One of our clients has been saving all year to spend her time travelling to New Zealand – just in time to see England get knocked out…  Perhaps for all these reason I have been enthralled by the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup.

For those of you who don’t follow rugby, it’s a very physical game, similar to, but with none of the protection used in the game of American Football. It inspires deep passions and fierce debate in the post-match analysis (that is, for UK fans at least, most often in the pub).

Eighteen minutes into the semi-final game between Wales and France, the Welsh Captain, Sam Warburton, was sent off for an illegal tackle on an opponent.  Despite this catastrophic loss, Wales managed to hold out against France, only losing by 1 point.

So what happened?  Perhaps by the time you read this, a replay will be available on YouTube – but here’s my synopsis:

The players reacted from the primeval part of their brain – sometimes known as the ‘lizard’ or ‘reptilian’ brain (technical term: basal ganglia). This means that emotional responses are very simple:

  1. “Will it kill me?”
  2. “Will I kill it?
  3. If the answer to the above is ‘no’, then “Can I mate with it“?

So the tackle that led to the sending off was a primeval response to a perceived threat.  I’m not trying to imply malicious intent or that the player really wanted to ‘kill’ the other – simply that his brain was reacting at a very fundamental level.

In his post-match interview, the Welsh Captain then showed another part of his brain – the ‘mammalian brain’ (‘limbic system’) – where his response seemed genuinely remorseful.  Warburton had a very positive previous disciplinary record, accepted his punishment well (a 3-match ban) and shifted to supporting his team to succeed in the ‘play-offs’ that he will miss.

It was good to note that Warburton was able to express his emotions: “disappointment” and still able to motivate his team to move forward and succeed without him.

And for me that was the greatest triumph of the Welsh team in defeat.  They did everything in their power to limit their opponents’ greater strength and did well to keep the score so close (9-8 to France).  This shows great resilience in the face of a catastrophe – something unexpected and probably unplanned.  You could argue that ‘Plan A’ was to win the match with the full team; ‘Plan B’ was that the remaining players gave their all – which they did.

By contrast, the New Zealand team, who are noted for ‘choking’ – that is, failing to hold together as a team, losing their emotional resilience – managed to win decisively against their arch-rivals, Australia.  We’re used to noticing individual body language: I would argue that there’s such a thing as ‘team body language’ – where the whole team are working as one great organism.

I find rugby very hard to watch – but I love watching the hakas: the pre-match intimidation ritual – they just make me smile.  It’s totally about connecting with that primitive part of the brain: you don’t need to understand what’s being said here to understand the meaning –

So what’s this got to do with the rest of us sitting in our offices, trying to survive in today’s economy?

  • We need to lead, inspire and motivate the people who work with and for us
  • Nothing every goes exactly to plan:  airline pilots call this ‘course correction’.  The aim is to achieve the vision: real life may get in the way and we need to keep on-vision, having corrected our course
  • We need to know that everyone, from time to time, reacts at a primeval level under pressure – and makes mistakes
  • Our teams need to be empowered to succeed without the leader being present
  • We need to recover quickly from mistakes – apologise sincerely, take our ‘punishment’, put things right and then move on
  • Being in touch with, and expressing how we feel is the mark of an authentic leader

Identifying potential trigger points and having a plan to avoid falling into the pit of the reptilian brain’s reactions is vital.  Typical triggers are

  • Situations – e.g. meetings, lack of sleep, too many plates spinning
  • People – e.g. relationships
  • Time – e.g. late nights, early mornings
  • The unexpected

Creating a learning environment and inspiring people to keep moving on towards the vision is the role of the emotionally-intelligent leader.  Noticing when and where these are most likely to occur, and having a ‘Plan B’ can mitigate many situations.  The New Zealand Rugby Team are the favourites to win the final – but watch the team body language, my prediction is that whoever has the greater will win.  If New Zealand maintain that – together with their team spirit, leadership and resilience they will win.



Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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