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The pitch-perfect leader

Sun, 25th Jan 2004

I BET Martin Johnson never went on a leadership course. Unlike his predecessor, I doubt whether England's World Cup winning rugby captain, who has announced his international retirement, will write a book about leadership either. In fact, how ever you look at it, the man under TV's best known beetle brows is an unlikely leadership totem all round.

Uncommunicative, less than media friendly, Johnson is pitch- rather than book-smart. He is, as he would say himself, an ordinary bloke. An accidental, initially reluctant captain, at first he was too taciturn to be a really good one. As he admits in his autobiography, he was also at heart a conservative one.

But he led by example. And my, how he learned. In the World Cup final, the captain as captain was the real difference between the two teams. Jonny Wilkinson may have delivered the winning points, but Johnson made that possible by providing the unwavering self-belief and keeping the side's head together, not only in the palpitating final minutes but also through some nervous performances in previous games.

How to explain the paradox? That Johnson is large and imposing was no hindrance. But on closer inspection, Johnson's England captaincy was a sophisticated and subtle affair, perfectly illustrating the way notions of leadership are changing to cope with a networked age.

Much of the mountainous literature and most of the development material on leaders and leadership concentrate on personal characteristics of managerial elites. But personal development, points out Mike Pedler, co-author with John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell of the excellent A Manager's Guide to Leadership (McGraw Hill), doesn't necessarily provide a helpful guide to action for the organisation. It does, however, lead directly to the disastrous 'lone hero' model of leadership that has wreaked such havoc on Western, and particularly US, corporations over the last few years.

Personal qualities are of course important - Johnson's combination of intense professional will and profound personal modesty were critical, and his essential honesty carried him unerringly through the tricky transition to professionalism.

But a better way of thinking about leadership, suggests Pedler, is as a response to challenge. This puts the emphasis on the here and now, a task and a context. Leadership is a performance art, he says, which has little meaning in the abstract.

For all its dangers, leadership is also becoming increasingly important. In an age of networks, knowledge and self-motivated professionals working in teams, administering resources isn't enough. The job is to animate them. So management is leadership: the ability to mobilise collective action to face a challenge.

This is a very different animal from the centralised, hoarded leadership of the past. Too often, says Pedler, leadership gets confused with the office holder, so power is tightly held in one place.

In contrast, today's leadership needs to be decentralised and distributed to every part of the organisation so those on the periphery who are first to spot challenges can act on them instantly.

This kind of inclusive leadership increases the organisation's agility and power to act at the same time as it serves the political end of diminishing the all-too-present dangers in centralised, charismatic authority. Leadership isn't authority it's everyone taking responsibility for making each decision as robust as it can be, by contest if necessary.

Now look at how this plays out in the England rugby team. Pedler's book quotes Gerard Egan: 'If your organisation has only one leader, it is probably short of leadership.' No chance of that. In his chapter on captaincy, Johnson notes that England have a 'captain' for every area of the game: for the scrum, for the lineout, and two for defence, with senior players also having their say. Players can and do take responsibility for decisions - not always to the glee of the captain: 'Some of [the team's] best moments, scorching tries scored ... after a quick tap-and-go, have come with me screaming in the background, "No, no ... go for the three points!" '

Every organisation needs captains all over the pitch, says Pedler, and the fact that Johnson leaves so many behind is another notch to his credit. It also, as he admits, made leading much easier - as did the immaculate supporting framework provided by coach Clive Woodward and the backup staff.

Leadership, as Pedler notes, is indivisible from the context that creates it. Johnson couldn't have been the undisputed leader he was without Woodward's ambitious planning and the support of great players.

But equally the team was only as good as it was because of Johnson's ability to focus the collective will and translate it into a simple, believable imperative: England would win the World Cup. Hardened internationals have said that he gave them confidence just being on the pitch.

The real test of all good leaders is an organisation that can survive and improve on them. No one can guarantee that, but Johnson, like a series of Australian cricket captains, has given England the best possible chance.

Come to think of it, in his characteristically honest, tell-it-as-it-is autobiography (sales 350,000 and rising) perhaps Johnson has written a leadership manual after all. A better casebook would be hard to imagine.

The Observer, 25 January 2004


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