3 Leadership Lessons From Rugby That Apply to Any Business

 Rugby players tackle each other

Leadership & Management

The international sport offers lessons in humility, collaboration, inclusion, and more that can drive success on the field and in the workplace.

Global business leaders could learn a thing or two from rugby.

For most Americans, rugby is an unfamiliar sport. The ball is shaped like an American football but isn’t used in the same way. It’s a contact-driven game but isn’t played like any other sport.

To me it’s second nature. In fact, in my decades of experience in a leadership role, I’ve found rugby to be the most fitting metaphor to describe the best way to approach organizational leadership. It has helped me hone strategies that ensure my teams can work efficiently and collaboratively across countries, cultures, and time zones.

There are three tried and true strategies I stick to when it comes to leading a business. They all ladder up to creating an environment that inspires employees to do their best work, and can be found on any successful rugby team:

1. An organizational structure that effectively distributes authority for decision-making

Teams work best when they feel empowered to make decisions while seamlessly collaborating with others. Out on the rugby pitch, it’s the same. While every rugby team has a captain, several other leaders on the field are critical in making on-the-spot game-time decisions. Oftentimes, leaders are interchangeable on the field. It’s this flexibility that gives teams the upper hand.

We see this in the business world, too. Roles and responsibilities are interchangeable, giving more freedom to the team at large to make decisions, even if it’s not within their direct field of expertise. Fostering an environment that encourages team members to pivot, collaborate, and try something outside of their comfort zone is vital to ensuring the organization can react to quick-turn opportunities or challenges.

We’ve been hearing “it’s all about teamwork” for decades now, but seeing it in practice is an entirely different reality. Adopting a flexible approach to authority distribution enhances team management in dynamic environments.

2. Strong relationships that foster collaboration

No team, rugby or business, is going to get very far without true collaboration. In rugby, that extends to mutual respect, on and off the pitch. Players call the referee “sir” or “ma’am” on the field of play. Decisions are accepted without tantrums, and opponents on the field can almost always be found sharing a beer at the end of a match — no matter how contentious.

Baseline camaraderie and respect are also essential in an office setting to avoid the trap of information silos and inter-team conflicts. Without effective collaboration, teams will duplicate work, leadership will make decisions with incomplete information, and organizational strategy will suffer.

In times of crisis, the risk is even higher. It’s important to stand up for what you believe is right while simultaneously maintaining strong and respectful relationships with your colleagues, or you’ll never be able to work together effectively in the long term. Attaining that balance isn’t easy, but it is possible.

3. A culture of inclusion where everyone can belong

With decades of experience working in global markets, I know all too well how important it is to ensure effective cross-cultural communication and understanding. Every country and region will have different expectations around workplace norms and communication styles, among other things. The sooner we accept that we are all different, and those differences serve the greater good, the stronger our collective offering. The power of diversity is made abundantly clear, simply by looking at the composition of a rugby team.

By its very nature, rugby is inclusive and diverse. The pitch is filled with a wide array of individuals: tall players, small players, fast players, and slow players — from all over the world. Each one of these individuals, of different shapes, sizes, colors, and ideals, band together to form a cohesive team that makes the game. The unique skills and perspective of each creates the strength of the team.

Any workplace will benefit from embodying that same spirit. Empowering employees to bring their whole selves to the office, and being intentional about holding space for colleagues to share more about their identities, are vital practices that foster productivity and a positive workplace culture.

A winning team, on or off the field

What most people need is affirmed leadership. Folks thrive when they know who to turn to, what the plan is, and how they contribute. With a dependable organizational structure, the encouragement to collaborate, and deep cross-cultural understanding, teams have the support system they need to do their best work.

I encourage all business leaders to reflect on their leadership style to pinpoint if there are any areas that require modification. Some small tweaks to your approach could be all you need to make sure your team is winning scrums and getting the ball across the try (goal) line.

Benchmark your workplace

Discover what employees value about working at your company, and how you can boost retention rates and increase productivity and performance with Great Place To Work Certification™.

James Daly