Home Human Resources News Graeme Yell: Winning – but at what cost? Leadership lessons from sport

Graeme Yell: Winning – but at what cost? Leadership lessons from sport

by LLB Editor
12th Jul 13 10:13 am

Is there room for sentiment when making big decisions?

This summer looks set to be yet another cracker in terms of sport – we’ve just witnessed Britain’s first Wimbledon singles champion since Virginia Wade, we’ve got everything crossed for another Tour de France hopeful and the Ashes are just about to get underway. My favourite sport of all is rugby and this month saw the conclusion of the three match series between the British and Irish Lions (a combined team who only come together every four years) against Australia.

Non-sports fans might find this hard to believe but the Lions tour has presented some fascinating questions in terms of leadership and decision-making. To zoom in on the central issue: the third game of the series was the decider, after the Lions won the first test and Australia won the second. Both games were nervous, relatively low-scoring affairs and many observers felt that the Lions looked decidedly second best. The team is picked from the ‘best of the best’ across the home nations and consequently they ought to be fantastic, but they had consistently fallen well short of their potential on the big stage.

This issue was compounded by the loss to injury of two of the Lion’s most valuable and influential players – the current and previous captain. This left a lack of experienced leaders within the team and the need for a new captain. Many people predicted that coach Warren Gatland would give this critical role to Irishman Brian O’Driscoll, veteran of four Lions tours and widely regarded as one of the best and most inspirational players of all time, playing in what would be his last ever international match. So you can imagine the tsunami of surprise when instead Gatland dropped O’Driscoll from the team (not even putting him on the replacement bench) and named a new captain in a team which had a large number of changes from the previous game.

History will record the result – the Lions went on to triumph in great style with a sparkling display that left Australia trailing by a wide margin. Many will see the result as justification of the decisions made; that is the established thinking pattern in our results-oriented society. But to do so deliberately ignores the potential for learning from the decisions in the final game. It represents an acceptance that attaining the goal is enough in itself, and everything else is incidental or swept completely under the convenient rug of success.

This is a pattern which I see all too often in leadership. Many leaders send the signal (explicitly or not): “Get me the result and whatever you need to do to get there is ok”. It is not a surprise that the corridors of offices around the world are strewn with the metaphorical wreckage of egos and personalities of those who didn’t seem to be fully onboard or were taking more time to adapt to the demands of a particularly tough challenge.

I come across many people whose careers, self-confidence or aspirations are seriously damaged by harsh leadership decisions made in the heat of high-pressure situations. I am not for a moment saying there is no place for tough decisions – far from it. However, too commonly these decisions are taken for the wrong reasons, for instance not looking to the long-term, or are never explained and their victims are left in a confidence-sapping vacuum of feedback.

For the Lions, there is no significant long-term implication for the team at least. The Lions disband and will only come together again, with a whole new generation of players, in 2017. For Brian O’Driscoll, it is a single sad footnote to an otherwise glittering career, although a decision which you suspect will haunt him forever. 

Many times I have heard senior leaders say: “There’s no room for sentiment when making big decisions”. When you think about it, the word ‘sentiment’ in this context makes it sound weak to take the feelings, aspirations and potential of others into account. It is a euphemistic way of saying that it is ok to treat other people badly when there is a big prize at stake. I will leave you on that note to ponder and discuss.

Graeme is a director at global management consultancy, Hay Group, specialising in leadership and talent management. He is a passionate advocate for the role leaders can (and should) play in business and society, and likes to spend his spare time socialising, cycling, and thinking.

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