In these heady times for Leinster Rugby, it’s easy to forget the low ebb the province found itself at this time four seasons ago. A convincing defeat in the Pro 12 final to Connacht coupled with a discouraging fourth-place finish in their Champions Cup pool meant a second straight season without silverware. For a team that had amassed a haul of seven major trophies in seven years, such a dry spell must have felt uncanny at the least. The arrival of Stuart Lancaster in the autumn of 2016 however, reversed that tide. In tandem with Head Coach, Leo Cullen, the province have sparkled since, claiming two Pro 14 titles and the biggest prize of all, the 2018 Champions Cup.
And while much is written about Lancaster the rugby coach, far less is known about him as a leader- leaving sporting connotations aside. To begin with, he values the importance of developing a leadership philosophy that is compatible with his surroundings, something his players can buy into. The playbook of yesteryear was for a coach to impose their particular style regardless of circumstances. Lancaster is different. He observes. He adapts. “I think that a successful coaching philosophy is something that’s unique to the coach. It’s something that he owns and that he has thought about and developed. And he has solved that philosophy in a way that people have bought into it. I think there are coaches that believe they’ve got a coaching philosophy and dictate it to the people they work with and it’s not a shared ownership of the philosophy. It’s just, ‘It’s your philosophy and I’ll do it because you’re the boss.’ There’s a big difference in that,” says Lancaster.
In today’s sporting context where management ego has never been greater, Lancaster’s leadership style is refreshing. It’s not about him. Never has been. One glance at his LinkedIn cover photo speaks volumes. The image is of his players celebrating with the glittering Champions Cup trophy. However, nowhere to be seen is Lancaster. Indeed, the only public image of Lancaster with the trophy that day is a picture taken with his family, long after the television cameras have disappeared and the crowds have evanesced into the early Bilbao evening.
This image provides a striking contrast with that of Jose Mourinho who, predictably, is front and centre (three fingers aloft) of most team pictures following his most recent success, Manchester United’s Europa League victory in 2017. Lancaster’s message, however, is clear: this great triumph was not about him. Yet, laughably, the achievement had so much to do with him. As is so often the case in sport, it is the players who provide insight into the true situation. And so, it was telling that in the aftermath of their European crowning that day, how lavish the praise for the Englishman was. One player after the other- key players especially- extolled the virtues of Lancaster. The team’s maestro, Jonathan Sexton was fulsome in his praise labelling Lancaster a “special coach”. Dan Leavy also suggested that the team’s recent success would have been impossible without him, hailing how he “revolutionised the way we train and the standards we expect of each other.”
A key theme that emerges from Lancaster’s leadership style is positivity, remaining upbeat when the chips are down. “People expect their leaders to be enthusiastic, energetic and positive about the future. Leaders must keep hope alive even in difficult times. Hope enables people to find the will and the way to unleash their future potential,” says Lancaster. This positive mindset becomes abundantly clear when one examines his ability to recover from the low of the 2015 World Cup to achieve such remarkable success with Leinster within such a short space of time.
While the fallout from England’s untimely World Cup exit had subsided to some degree before joining Leinster, the sudden end to what was a mostly successful stint at the helm was unpalatable. The black and white culture of today, which is propagated by social media, allows for almost no middle ground to exist meaning that Lancaster’s England stint was unjustly categorised as a failure by far too many. A more rational analysis proves the fallacy of such a notion. Apart from the abundance of young players introduced to the England fold, Lancaster led his team to four consecutive second-placed finishes in the Six Nations.
Winning four out of five matches in each of these, Lancaster could easily have at least two Six Nations titles to his name, with England having missed out on points difference on three occasions. The brand of rugby was also exhilarating and expansive at a time when rugby was becoming increasingly tactical, contrived and was detaching itself from the swashbuckling running rugby of the amateur era. His reign also included a thumping victory over New Zealand, the nation’s first in eleven years.
Disappointingly, a lot of this success is overshadowed by the raw emotion of the World Cup disappointment where one bad result against Wales and more specifically, one bad decision by captain Chris Robshaw ensured a pool-stage departure. Sport being the cruel business it is, Lancaster made way for Eddie Jones to take charge. Not one to dwell in self-pity, Lancaster used his time away from the game productively. He spent time in New Zealand to assist younger coaches and broaden his knowledge of the game. He also spent a week with American football outfit, Atlanta Falcons trying to improve their defensive solidity. The more one learns about Lancaster the leader, the less one is surprised to hear of such an ambition to improve and a willingness to travel so far in order to become better. Aspiring leaders should be continually building their competence he believes. “If you study leadership your competence will grow, so then will your confidence. Too many people wait their whole life waiting to be confident when they should be building their competence,” he affirms.
So, by the time the Cumbrian had linked-up with Leinster, the England job was very much in the distant past. Lancaster’s first interaction with his new charges was a telling one, a statement of intent. His declaration that he wanted to lead the province to European glory again was something few players expected to hear. After all, since their last coronation in 2012, Leinster had never really threatened Europe’s elite, save for a spirited run to the semi-finals in the Matt O’Connor reign (finishing fifth in the league that year).
But with Leinster legend Leo Cullen alongside him, Lancaster immediately set about making a profound impact. Knowing Lancaster the leader, such an eagerness to hit the ground running was not surprising, for he is steadfast in his belief that establishing credibility is the very foundation of leadership. “Credibility matters. Leaders must be ever diligent in guarding the credibility. That ability to take a strong stance, to challenge the status quo, and point people in new directions depends on credibility. People have to believe the messenger to believe the message.”
Ever the self-improver, Lancaster is using the current slowdown in activity to good effect. Taking the time to grow as a leader is something he views as important. “You have got to be reflective and think about how you’ve dealt with certain situations. Find space in your diary to think. If you don’t find space in your diary to think about how you can improve and develop as a coach, how you’ve dealt with certain situations, then ultimately you’ll just go along chasing your tail. So, I think actually creating that downtime is a very difficult thing to do. If you don’t find that time for you, then ultimately you’ll find yourself never growing as a coach. I think ultimately, you’ll never be the best you can be.” It’s typical Lancaster. Always learning. Always leading.
Neil Stokes – Sports Writer