A rugby lesson for English rioters

First posted on Brand Republic on 16 Aug 2011

Next week, Martin Johnson, the manager of the England rugby team, has to cut his current squad of 40 players down to the final 30 who will travel to New Zealand for the forthcoming World Cup.

A few years ago, I attended a lunch at which Sir Clive Woodward was guest speaker. He was the England manager for the World Cups of 1999 and 2003 and was faced with the same decision then as Johnson faces next week.

Sir Clive spoke very eloquently on the subject of leadership, teamwork and human behaviour.

I cannot quote him verbatim, but one of his lessons was particularly interesting.

In 1997, he took his 40-man squad down to the Headquarters of the Royal Marines for a ‘beasting’ (vernacular for intense physical training). In a series of carefully worked out challenges and alien situations, the England rugby squad would be tested on the importance of teamwork in waging war and killing people. In this context, their rugby could only improve.

Woodward’s story went something like this.

After the beasting, which all agreed had been a punishing but eye-opening experience, he wrote and thanked the Colonel of the Regiment for his kind hospitality.

A few days later, he realised he had not thanked the Sergeant-Major, the guy who had actually done all the work and taught his players some life-changing lessons.

So Woodward gave him a call to thank him and then, almost as an afterthought, he asked the him if he agreed with his final selection of 30 of the initial 40-man squad.

“Well” said the Sergeant-Major “I’ve been a football supporter all my life. I’m a Millwall man through and through. I don’t know anything about rugby. But I have to tell you that you have picked three men who we would not go to war with”.

“What do you mean?” said Woodward, shocked and concerned.

“Well, sir, I don’t know if these three guys are good rugby players or not. I don’t know if they have superior skills to the others or if they make better decisions under pressure than some you have left behind. But, in the Marines, we know there are certain people in life who live for themselves and only themselves. They are more interested in their own good, not the success of the team. If something goes wrong, it is someone else’s fault. If they see themselves in competition with a colleague, they will undermine that person by making snide comments behind their back or lobbying others against them. They are not capable of taking personal responsibility for their own actions. They suck attention from those around them and don’t give anything back. We call them energy-sappers”.

In 1997, it was too late for Woodward to change his final squad. England were knocked out in the quarter-finals.

In 2003, Woodward remembered the words of the Sergeant-Major. There were no energy-sappers in the squad. England won the World Cup.

You may have energy-sappers in your office.

As we know now, in the big wide world, we have energy-sappers all around us.

We have to live with them.

As I have argued before (and the politicians just seem to have realised), it is a Role of Government to work out more intelligent ways of doing this than plonking 16,000 coppers onto the streets of London – in a panic and after the event.

Career politicians may or may not win elections – but they are all losers in life.

In the marketing business, we know more about human behaviour than they do.

So, it seems, do the Marines.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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