Leadership in the NRL

Picture Courtesy of the South Sydney Rabbitohs

For those international readers of our newsletter, this story is about the National Rugby League (NRL) competition here in Australia. The story is about the coach of one specific club, who recently made a decision which challenges many of our preconceived assumptions about leadership and people management.

The coach of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Michael Maguire, recently made a shock decision by naming not one, but five captains for his first grade team. According to South Sydney’s official website, Michael Crocker, Roy Asotasi, Sam Burgess, Matt King and John Sutton will form the “leadership group” for the duration of the year.
“One of these players will be appointed each game to toss the coin and speak with the referees, but on every other aspect of the team we operate as an entire group with these five players making up our captaincy,” Coach Maguire explains, “It’s a strong leadership model that everyone has bought into at the Club. I’ve experienced it at Wigan, and I’ve seen it work successfully at other Clubs and in other sports as well… We’re confident that these five players will provide the leadership we need to operate as a team, and to continue our efforts to improve in everything we do.”
Maguire’s decision is certainly unconventional but he has explained clearly the way he expects the model to operate and his logic for introducing it at Souths. However, will it work? With only four games played so far this season it is certainly too early to tell however with only one win from four outings, preliminary results are not good.
There are a lot of definitions of leadership out there, but Organisational Psychologist Elliott Jaques coined one of my favourites. According to Jaques, Leadership is “the talent to bring people together, to get them to work effectively together to meet a common goal, to co-operate with each other, to rely upon each other, to trust each other.” Defined like this, it’s clear that the role of a Captain within a sporting team is certainly a leadership role. So how do we evaluate whether Maguire’s “5 is better than 1” logic is robust?  Let’s take some time to consider it from a few different perspectives:
1. Emergent Leadership
It could be that Maguire simply did not know who would be the best leader within the team. He may have perceived both strengths and weaknesses in most of the candidates and wanted to allow the leader most able to get the best out of the group to emerge. Nominating five captains would certainly allow room for this to occur. By providing an equal platform to all five leaders Maguire is providing an equal opportunity for each of them to demonstrate leadership qualities. If indeed one clear leader emerges from within the leadership group, Maguire could always change his decision at a later date.
2. Training and Benchstrength
Although research suggests that some elements of leadership are genetic, or at least lea

ed at a very early age, there are some aspects of leadership which, like any skill, need to be lea

ed and practiced over time. If Maguire felt that leadership was a major gap within his team, then maybe he was hoping that that providing five people an opportunity to practice this skill on a weekly basis should be better than only one.

3. Self-managed Teams
There are a number of famous case-studies that posit the benefits of self-managed teams. The idea with such an approach is by removing a traditional management role, it is expected that the individual contributors within the team will be comfortable taking risks, exercising judgement and innovating. Thinking from this perspective, it is likely that increasing the number of leaders will stifle creativity and leadership from within the playing group rather than encouraging it.
4. Specific Role Requirements of a Captain
It is important for any employee who wants to work effectively, to match their focus and effort with the needs of the role they are performing. For example, there are some roles where people management is much more important than a person’s technical contribution. There are other roles where someone’s accuracy implementing work is much more important than the quality of their strategic thinking. The role of a sporting captain is particularly unique. Often the captain is chosen for their leadership attributes. However, they usually also need to be one of the most skilled athletes in the team (otherwise their position is not safe week-in and week-out). This poses a difficult quandary from a leadership perspective and maybe this gets to the heart of why coach Maguire has chosen the strategy that he has. If a captain’s role is much more applied athleticism than pure leadership then why not have a number of captains?
5. Bureaucracy Busting
Those of us that have been engaged in “bureaucracy busting” exercises will tell you that one of the first things that you look at when you’re trying to unshackle a company‘s culture, is the number of managers that they have. The more managers that a company has per employee, the more hands-on  you would expect those managers to be. Lots of managers often indicate a level of redundancy in the organisational structure which often results in managers creating work for themselves. At times this can also result in managers engaging in unproductive behaviour such as office politics. If you take a bureaucracy busting perspective when thinking about Maguire’s decision, you are likely to come to some fairly uncomplimentary conclusions. If it’s “hands-on leadership” you are trying to encourage, why not make EVERYONE a captain, rather than choosing a third of the team?!
6. Expectation Management
As leaders, it is always important to be mindful of the expectations that you are raising via the promises that you make or the actions you take. By nominating five captains, Coach Maguire is encouraging all of these players to see themselves as leaders within the team, subordinate to nobody. While taking on such an attitude will be critical for the success of this leadership model now, it must be said that it will be difficult to go back to a sole captain approach at a later date, without disenfranchising at least four of the team’s most skilled players. Time will tell whether this decision is the right thing for the club and players concerned. If this turns out to be the wrong decision… the club will almost certainly experience some turmoil as they try and roll-back the initiative.
So what is the right answer?
To my knowledge there isn’t sufficient empirical research available to know for sure how effective this initiative is likely to be. It could also be that the role of a sporting captain is sufficiently different to the role of a leader in corporate life that any leadership research in this space is irrelevant. However, if I was a betting man I would NOT be gambling on this experiment coming off. The role of a leader is a careful balancing act that requires skill and practice. Just like every other role, we need room to make mistakes and lea

from them, to have the courage to make decisions and stand by them.  The idea that five people sharing a key leadership role will somehow result in better decisions (especially in the heat of battle within a Rugby League match) I find fairly unlikely. However, I LOVE the fact that Michael Maguire has had the courage to take this step and that Souths management are sticking by him. Now THAT IS true leadership!

For further information about Coach Maguire’s captaincy decision please check out the following article which is referenced on the website:
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