Gary Kirsten advised me to not be afraid of being fired during a PowerAde Performance clinic in 2018. He explained that it was part of being a coach; being hired and fired. It is the only thing that you can be certain of.
My team had just suffered a heavy defeat to Grey Kollege on national television the previous day. You can imagine how unsettling this advice was. It has taken me a while to finally understand why one should not be afraid of failure. Syed (2015) suggests that the key to success is a positive attitude to failure.
Coaches fail all the time. Even great coaches fail. We cannot grow unless we are prepared to learn from our mistakes according to Syed (2015). This is why some coaches have to fail in order to become great.
If you have a look at Eddie Jones’ Wallabies record before being sacked in 2005. He was a failure, he failed. Take a further look at his record with the Queensland Reds in the Super 14 tournament in 2007.
No one will remember or care that they were ravaged by injuries that season. In his last game in charge, they were beaten 3 – 92 by the Bulls. Jones resigned in 2007 to relocate to the United Kingdom. He was then asked to join the Springbok coaching team by Jake White and the rest is history. Steve Hansen had a dismal record as the Welsh coach. “When Steve coached Wales, he lost 19 of his 29 tests” (Meyer, 2020, p.250).
He went on to become one of the greatest All-Black coaches of all time. One must not forget that he took over the Welsh coaching job from Graham Hendry who had just been fired. Graham Hendry also went on to become a great All Black coach, leading them to their first World Cup in 24 years in 2011.
Jake White did not have his contract renewed after winning the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Many coaches have failed at some stage during their coaching journey.
“If we don’t take a broader view of life and consider every recountable experience and relationship that have brought us to becoming who we are, we run the risk of missing out on the transformative lessons success and failure stand to teach us” (Meyer, 2020, p.13).
A coach is often not forwarded the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. They get fired too soon or they feel the pressure to resign. “When we engage with our errors we improve” (Syed, 2015, p.274). These lessons are then taken with them into their next coaching positions.
If I had an opportunity to interview any of these coaches, they would all be able to reflect on what they got wrong and how they would have done things differently. If only they had the chance. The reality is they never will.
I have until recently been the Head of Rugby (2016 – 2020) and 1st XV Head Coach (2017 – 2020) at Grey High School. I had just led our 2019 1st XV to a successful season. We were defeated on 3 occasions, which was the least amount of losses the team had recorded since 2008. We were also undefeated in the Eastern Province and Border regions, which was also a feat last achieved back in 2008.
I had been the Head Coach of the 1st XV for three full seasons and two of these teams had recorded a 75% win percentage, something that had only been achieved five times in the last decade. Some of the highlights from our last full season included our 15A (lost 2), 16A (lost 2), and 1st XV (lost 3). All three of these sides were unbeaten in the Eastern Cape.
Contrary to what it may seem, I am not trying to blow my own trumpet. I am no longer the school’s Head of Rugby. I resigned at the start of the year. I am writing this post to share some insight on where I got it wrong.
Grey High School 1st XV Results between 1989-2019
Surely all these achievements would prove that the rugby program was working? I have made reference to this in my last post a modern schoolboy rugby program.
As a leader, it is easy to get caught up in statistics. I mean, how else would you measure the success of a coach? Lencioni (2012) states that it is easier for leaders to bury themselves in measurable, objective, and data-driven things. The thing is, for any institution to be successful, the true measure is how healthy the organization is. Had I created a healthy organization?
What are some of the characteristics of a healthy organization? According to Lencioni (2012) they are the following: Minimal politics, Minimal confusion, High morale, High productivity, and Low turnover. I had been in the privileged position of leadership for 5 years.
There was enough time to create a healthy organization. It finally dawned on me that this was something I had not achieved.
This is what led me to take the decision to step down. “If we edit out failure, if we reframe our mistakes, we are effectively destroying one of the most precious learning opportunities that exist” (Syed, 2015, p. 94). I had failed and I am no longer ashamed to share the lessons that I have learned.
Learn to trust fully
“Leadership is about integrity, honesty and accountability” (Sinek, 2014, p.150). These are all components of trust. Trust must be the most important thing when it comes to any form of teamwork. “Trust is like lubrication. It reduces friction and creates conditions much more conducive to performance” (Sinek, 2014, p.78). In a previous post the journey of a coach I shared the effects of perturbation.
The tendency of a coach who gets into this situation is to shut everyone else out and to not ask for help. They feel as if they need to do more themselves. Paranoia sets in and they perceive everyone around them as wishing them to fail.
I had become trapped within my own thoughts. The only way that I could have prevented this, was to have built stronger relationships with the coaching team that I was leading. There were good people all around me and it was because of my lack of trust that I didn’t lean on them for more help.
“The only way for teams to build real trust is for team members to come clean about who they are, warts and all” (Lencioni, 2012, p.35). Lencioni (2012) refers to it as vulnerability-based trust. If a team can truly trust one another any conflict situation will be easier to resolve. This should be everyone’s goal when leading a team.
“There is no such thing as virtual trust” (Sinek, 2014, p. 111). I spent too much of my time putting resources together to assist the coaching program and too little time actually being physically present at their training sessions. This would have improved the relationships that I could have fostered among the coaching staff throughout the club. “When trust and cooperation thrive internally, we pull together and the organization grows stronger as a result” (Sinek, 2014, p.14).
“Building trust requires nothing more than telling the truth” (Sinek, 2014, p.154). We all need to learn to be comfortable with speaking directly and honestly. This will in turn build trust. Leaders often fail to tell the truth or opt to spin something to appear if they did nothing wrong according to Sinek (2014).
“Contrary to popular wisdom and behaviour, conflict is not a bad thing for a team. In fact, the fear of conflict is almost a sign of problems” (Lencioni, 2012, p.38). The nature of the game unfortunately draws out the worst in us. Egos get in the way. I let my ego get the better of me. This, unfortunately, led to conflict situations that should have been dealt with differently.
The thing is, conflict is something that needs to be drawn out in order to move on. To be a successful leader you cannot avoid conflict. It needs to become something that is embraced. I should have embraced conflict as a learning opportunity according to Yaeger (2016). If I had applied the “Karpman Drama Triangle of the victim, persecutor, and rescuer” (Yaeger, 2016, p.95).
I would have dealt with conflict situations with an increased understanding. “When there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best solution” (Lencioni, 2012, p.38).
“When leadership team members avoid discomfort among themselves, they only transfer it in far greater quantities to larger groups of people throughout the organization they’re supposed to be serving” (Lencioni, 2012, p.40). Leaders need to take the lead when it comes to conflict. They should not leave their team members to try and resolve issues on their own. It needs to be addressed by the leader. This is something that I didn’t always do. I will be better at this in the future.
When a team member withholds their opinion when they disagree with something, it can lead to the erosion of team cohesiveness according to Lencioni (2012). All team members need to feel comfortable with sharing their own opinions. However, there is a conflict continuum that Lencioni (2012, p.24) refers to:
At one end of that continuum is no conflict at all. I call this artificial harmony because it is marked by a lot of false smiling and disingenuous agreement around just everything, at least publicly. At the other end of the continuum is relentless, nasty, and destructive conflict, with people constantly at one another’s throats.
One needs to ensure that conflict remains at an ideal point, which is where constructive conflict can occur. It is a fine balance. “Such a clash of personality can heavily disrupt the productivity of a team-or can even destroy it” (Yaeger, 2016, p.84).
If conflict is dealt with properly it can have the opposite effect on team cohesion and productivity. You need to draw conflict out, but you must ensure that it doesn’t get to a tipping point of no return. Conflict can so easily derail a relationship or become the very thing that can strengthen it. The challenge, of course, is to get it right.
Focus on culture
To be successful there needs to be a hyper-focus on culture. This culture needs to be based on integrity and accountability. I did not focus enough on creating a healthy culture. Internal rivalries can shatter an organizational culture according to Sinek (2014). Teams should be driven to create a culture of greatness. Success and greatness must become something that everyone can take ownership of.
When we start worrying about what is right for yourself and your status against the needs of the organization, you start impacting on the culture of the organization. “In a weak culture, we veer away from doing the right thing in favor of doing the thing that’s right for me” (Sinek, 2014, p. 129). I was led by my ego and I made decisions that were right for myself but not the organization. I had become the exact person who could no longer lead the program.
“We will always look at the external fear of failure – the fear of being unfairly blamed or punished – which also undermines learning from mistakes” (Syed, 2015, p. 138). I had only myself to blame for getting it wrong. No one in a cohesive team can say that they did their job and that any failure wasn’t their fault according to Lencioni (2012). I doubt that I will get the opportunity to set up a rugby program within a schoolboy structure again.
I sincerely hope that if any of you are honored with this position that you can learn from the mistakes that I have made. Always remember that failure is not final nor fatal. If everyone coaches with passion, passion for the game, for the kids, for human relationships, egos will be put aside. To do that everyone needs to accept each other for who they are. Be authentic, honest, and stay humble.
Lencioni, Patrick. (2012). The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business. San Francisco, Wiley Imprint, 2012.
Meyer, Heyneke. (2020). 7 My Notes on Leadership and Life. South Africa, ABC Press, 2020.
Sinek, Simon. (2014). Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. England, Clays Ltd. 2014.
Syed, Matthew. (2015). Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance. London, John Murray Publishers, 2016.
Yaeger, Don. (2016). Great Teams: 16 Things High Performing Organizations Do Differently. Nashville, Tennesse: W Publishers, 2016.