Why England Rugby may have found their ideal coach

Eddie JonesEddie Jones could be the ideal coach for England, according to one theory of leadership. But a Clive Woodward he ain’t

In the words of Monty Python, England rugby needed something completely different, after its nightmare of a World Cup last year. The selectors reacted by sacking the rather school-masterly Stuart Lancaster, and replaceinghim with the pit bull terrier that is Eddie Jones, and mastermind of Japan’s World Cup heroics.

Leaders Member Exchange theory

I base my case on a theory of leadership known as Leader Member Exchange or LMX. It is not as fashionable as charismatic leadership, which anyway is revealing its dark side in the US Primaries at present. But LMX has been subjected to a fair level of academic scrutiny.

LMX and Eddie

The classic paper on LMX by George Graen and Mary Uhl-Bien is now twenty years old. However, it has withstood the test of time and is still a good starting place for anyone wanting to make a serious study of leadership.

An update can be found in Dilemmas of Leadership (2015) and in The Sage Handbook of Leadership.

The key point about LMX is that a leader’s impact becomes clearer if you can tease our characteristics of the relationships between leaders and followers. This requires understanding of various levels of interaction including ‘one on one’ and ‘one on group’ levels. After twenty years, there is still a lot to go at.

[Incidentally, in re-reading the Graen and Uhl-Bien paper I found a sophisticated treatment of ‘leadership making’ as followers contribute to the ‘making’ of’ a leader, the rationale for Leaders We Deserve.]

In this post, I borrow just a few ideas from LMX to comment on Eddie Jones the coach as leader, and his impact on individuals and the England team performance. I make no attempt to test the validity of LMX theory.

Effective leadership resides in developing mature trust-based relationships between leader (in this case Jones) and followers (the squad). I mention the squad not the team. There have been examples of disastrous and immature relationships between the elite first-pick team and the mid week team, for example, on Lions tours. The trust placed in the leader from the first team (the in-group) is rnot found among members idesignated as reserves unless the social identity of the players is handled sensitively.

The theory has contributed to thinking about how in-groups and out-groups form. Jones has to deal with that, as does any other coach. The tricky problems of trust development are believed to be important. In football, the terminology for trust breakdown is ‘losing the dressing room’. A simple specific example was the situation (dilemma) facing Jones’ predecessor Stuart Lancaster over the selection of the son of one of his coaching staff.

Everyone hates us …

We are getting some clear messages from Jones about his beliefs, and those he would like to instill into his players. They have included the old in-group and out-group motif. He insists that England is hated by the other five nations and the team has to deal with that.

The selection of the tempestuous Dylan Hartley as captain is consistent with the combative style Jones seeems to be aiming for.

When questioned about targeting Ireland’s gifted but injury prone Sexton of Ireland, this week, Jones said he expected to play to any weakness in an opponent.

It is a kind of ‘nobody loves us but we don’t care’ style.

Gentlemanly values, ungentlemanly conduct

Whereas Mourinho’s football teams were as tough as any, The Special One preferred to pretend they always were superior players dealing with the unjustified assaults of inferior opponents.

In the past, England’s rugby coaches have been English and tended to approve of gentlemanly conduct. The taste for muscularity was still there, revealed in the fondness for a preference for selecting for forward dominance, and use of a vocabulary in which massive was the adjective of choice for general performance and physicality.

Clive Woodward, coaoch of England’s world cup victory had his favoured enforcers, but would rarely celebrate violence openly.
Somewhere between the two extremes of concealed and overt encouragement of in-play mayhem was the approach of the great coach Caewyn James who years ago urged his Welsh team to get their retaliation in first.

Expectations are high in England

Early days. Will Eddie Jones lift England to their expectations of competing with the Southern Hemisphere teams? He has one advantage. The current squad has potential to do better than they have been doing.

Maybe, like Trump on the stump, he is giving voice to an approach his players already approve of.

It may all end in tears. But there is a great potential waiting to be unlocked in the current England squad. And Jones may be just the man with the key to unlock it.

If I have read LMX theory accurately, the challenge will come as the squad develops, and different relationships are called for between a coach, his captain (or her) and players.

[drafted before the England Ireland match , Feb 26 2016]

 

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