Warren Gatland: Rugby’s effective answer to charismatic leadership

Warren GatlandThe Lion’s tour of Australia has thrust their coach Warren Gatland into the media spotlight. His appearance and actions demonstrate that effectiveness in a leader does not necessarily require a charismatic style

Warren Gatland has appeared in literally hundreds of news items during the Lion’s rugby tour of Australia. Dozens of commentators have offered their views of his strategic decisions. I have not come across any that have implied he is a charismatic leader. Nor had I come across severe criticism of the effectiveness of his decision-making in the areas of team selection and match preparation and tactics until the announcement [2nd July 2013] of the team to play the final and series-determining test match.

Effective and non-charismatic

That leads me to conclude that he is widely perceived as both highly effective and non-charismatic. Someone surfing the Leaders We Deserve site recently was searching for evidence that Gatland might be transactional in leadership style. He can show both transactional and transformational elements in his comments about players and their motivations.

His low-key press performances suggest that he is has an uncomplicated way of understanding the needs of his players which avoids the dangers of showing favouritism. This was important, because Gatland had coached the successful Welsh squad to success prior to the tour, and will resume duties after it. Journalists from the other Rugby playing countries England, Scotland and the combined Irish territories might have hinted at favouritism in selection. Gatland’s frank press conferences may have contributed to avoiding that criticism. The evidence is that he has largely addressed the dangers of demotivated ‘second class citizens’ playing only in the provincial games. This has bedevilled earlier tours including the one coached by [Sir] Clive Woodward.

Kicking out the box

I don’t like to capture leadership style as a fixed and unitary trait. Style is better (in my judgement) treated as a description of an important pattern of behaviour that may change with circumstances. That incidentally is the basis of situational leadership theory which suggests just that, offering style as variable according to circumstances or contingencies. Beware of boxing people into one fixed style of behaviour.

Level five leadership

I have written in the past about level five leaders in sport, a term attributed to Jim Collins. The theory is that charismatics have powerful influencing skills, but tend to be tripped up by their own ego. Level five leadership has been described as demonstrated by those who show fierce resolve with less intrusion of personal ego. Which may suit what we have seen of Warren Gatland recently. But I hope that assessment is not the same as putting him into a conceptual box.

I write this still uncertain if the Lions will win the three match test series. The outcome will not impact on the evidence of Gatland’s effectiveness or style.

Hero to zero?

The Warren Gatland story hit the headlines internationally through his selection decisions for the final test. The series decider took place after a one-point loss by the Lions in the second match. Gatland made several changes. These would have been controversial as the starting XV contained no Scottish representatives and ten players from Wales the country Gatland now coaches. But the most shocking omission was that of BOD (Brian O’Driscoll) Irish legend who would have been playing in hist last Lions test match. Gatland, it is worth noticing, was a successful coach of Ireland’s national team in the past. He had noticed and nurtured O’Driscoll’s great talent.

The selection was widely criticized, provoking bitterness and anger in the judgements of such authorities as Sottish commentator Ian Robertson, and by former Irish commentator Keith Wood. I found the hundreds of comments in web-discussion sites both depressing and enlightening. Fury and anger was directed towards Gatland. The most widespread comments were that he was an inept decision-maker, following a dubious strategy which involved picking his ‘own’ Welsh players. (Gatland is from New Zealand, incidentally, the country most fiercely competitive against Australia.). One more balanced comment reminded us that Gatland is notoriously unsentimental in his decision-making. At the start of the Lion’s tour he left behind Sean Edwards, his [English} coach to the Welsh team’s backs. Edwards Felt ‘gutted’ about the decision.

The most revealing comments indicate that Gatland should be judged on whether the Lions win the final test. I have explained above why I think that is a poor way of assessing a leader’s capabilities. But I welcome comments from LWD subscribers.

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