It was Bill Shankly who famously said that football was not a matter of life and death. It was, he added, more important than that. I’ve never really understood the round ball game; I don’t see why they can’t just pick the ball up and run with it. Well, the arrival of the rugby world cup means that for the next five weeks we rugby fans will be fixated on events in New Zealand. For the day of the final I have rather optimistically pencilled in my diary Wales versus tbc. A classic case of the heart ruling the head. I also have a coffee mug emblazoned with the words: ‘I’d rather be watching Wales.’ In fact it should say, as any true rugby fan will agree, ‘I’d rather be watching France’. They play the game with a beguiling combination of éclat, insouciance, and brute force. Marvellous to watch.
Plenty of books have been written about what businesses can learn from sport, and many former sportsmen have made a living giving motivational speeches, talking of dedication, commitment, bonding, even thinking under pressure. This led to the creation of a whole industry around the idea of senior executives as corporate athletes. The modern interpretation of mens sana in corpore sano led to hundreds of CEOs swapping opera and golf for marathon running and personal trainers. Nutritionists devised special diets and Cartier watches were ditched in favour of heart monitors, all designed to ensure that these executives were in peak condition to run their organisations.
There is no doubt that the focus on the physical well-being of those who work under pressure has been a good thing. However, there are two areas where I feel more could be done. The first is mental health. That many people work too hard and experience high levels of stress is not in doubt. Physical exercise can help mitigate the worst symptoms but they don’t address the root cause. Proper relaxation, through techniques such as meditation, can help enormously to put things into context. Much activity in organisations is focused on doing things. Proper reflection can help bring a sense of perspective to issues that otherwise remain clouded by the haze of constant activity.
The second issue is the often misunderstood idea of leadership. The mythology of the leader as being a special person – a mythology perpetuated by business schools, talent managers and headhunters – has led to a dilution in the importance of the team. Leadership isn’t about doing. It is about creating the climate in which things can be done. The rugby world cup will be won by a squad of wholly inter-dependent players, supported by a host of professionals. It won’t be one player, not even the captain. It won’t be the coach, and it won’t be the fitness advisor. It will be the best team. A team of generalists and specialists; a team that comes in all shapes and sizes but that respect and complement each others skills. It is teams that win, teams that recognise that every member is, at any given time, the leader.
Not everyone, of course, agrees. And so the final word must surely go to the New Zealand schoolgirl who, in 1995 wrote to the All Blacks and said: “I want each of you to remember that rugby is a team game. And that means all 14 of you passing the ball to Jonah Lomu.”