A New Leadership Culture At Twickenham?

A guest post by Jan Kapcia.

After the Autumn internationals, it seems that Twickenham as the home of English rugby union has undergone a transformation of sorts. Led by Stuart Lancaster, England beat the All Blacks on Saturday in a famous 38-21 win, after what had been a disappointing run until then.

But it is not just rugby union which has undergone a transformation in leadership styles. The rugby league team at St. Mary’s University College in Twickenham are also learning from a different approach to coaching. We caught up with coach Jonathan Griffin last month.

St. Mary’s Rugby League listen to their coach at a cold night’s training. Photo: Jan Kapcia

St. Mary’s Rugby League listen to their coach at a cold night’s training. Photo: Jan Kapcia

Griffin is a coach from a rugby union background, coaching all over the world, with influence from his native Ireland but also from his time coaching rugby in America and learning from coaches of Australasia, in both rugby codes.

“It’s about reciprocation. Get something and give something,” according to the Irishman. Now coaching student players – who have been explicitly told that study comes first – is a new chance for the learning process to be tested again.

Griffin would be the first to admit that he is nowhere near where he wants to be as a coach, nor are the ‘Simms’ team producing the kind of results that can’t be improved upon, but it is a work in progress. He spoke of trying to work hard to give responsibility to the players. And the hope that with responsibility becomes accountability and this offers the chance for people to “step up” as Griffin refers to it.

“The aim is to get more people doing a little bit more, rather than having two people doing 100% of the work, try and get 20 people doing 5% of the work, and all of a sudden you’re getting a lot more work done.”

So, how do the players respond? “The more demands I put on, them, the more they realise that this is actually quite serious.”

You get the impression it goes further than on the field. “It can’t just be about on the field. Because if you win a game, that’s it. There’s a great saying by the All Blacks coaches ‘good people make great All Blacks’. You can have all the skill sets as individuals, but if we don’t have individuals working well, it’s not going to mean a lot.

“Wayne Smith (the former player and now rugby union coach) has done work about personal development and team development. These guys are all the same in terms of skill, athleticism. But it’s the guys who understand each other, who are empathetic, who have emotional intelligence, there’s a personal growth element.” Griffin also cites Shaun Edwards as a big influence, and in terms good coaching practice, the Simms coach believes that Stuart Lancaster reflects the great coaches of the last 30 or 40 years.

“Their big thing is about team culture and leadership.” According to Griffin, this is enforced through self-reflection, for both coaches and players.

So what in his opinion makes a good leader? Griffin believes that maybe we don’t emphasise leadership enough in Britain, not necessarily just in a sporting context but in wider elements of life. He cited places such as high schools and many workplaces as not emphasising the concept of leadership enough. I asked are we behind? “Oh we’re not behind, we’re not even on the same planet.”

He continued: “I think there’s an enormous lack of leadership development. In fact just even the word leadership isn’t used nearly enough as it should be. It’s not something people aspire to, which I find interesting.

“Leadership is an everyday thing, an every moment thing. Its reflective of who you are, that’s why emotional intelligence is so important. Growth mindset. Your ability to be a good team-mate.

“Everybody makes mistakes but I want to make sure that when we make them that we are making them in a growth mindset, in a very positive environment and you can learn from that. Rather than being terrified of making mistakes, and then you make more mistakes. It’s about encouraging self-reflection.”

Griffin’s passion for the game and for the discipline of coaching and learning is obvious. But his attention to detail in the specifics of improving skills and making better players has a wider purpose. “For me its important that we’re developing good people.”

The players may learn this, just like the All Blacks did last weekend.