Focusing on leadership and performance: lessons from England’s historic series win in Australia

Whether or not Peter Drucker did say that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (and there is apparently some debate here) it is certainly a philosophy that Stuart Lancaster, recently departed England Rugby Football Union coach took to heart.  It is one that his successor, Australian Eddie Jones, interprets in a rather different way.

Lancaster took over management of the England team in 2011, following a disappointing World Cup campaign in New Zealand led by Martin Johnson.  There were major criticisms of the culture within the England team. The problems were a varied set of behaviours.  These included allegations of dwarf throwing in a nightclub (seriously) and one England player jumping off the Auckland ferry.  This may have all been overlooked had the performance on the pitch been as eye-catching.  It was not and Johnson departed shortly afterwards.


The Lancaster Approach

Initially appointed as interim Coach, Lancaster had success in the 2012 Six Nations tournament and was appointed as permanent Head Coach in March, 2012.  He landed the job ahead of a number of globally renowned coaches with significantly more international rugby coaching experience.  Lancaster brought in a fresh perspective, introduced a number of younger players he had previously worked with at a more junior level, and was renowned for the values and culture he brought to the team.

A new captain arrived, the squeaky clean Chris Robshaw, renowned for his work-rate, sheer effort and traditional values.  Lancaster invested hugely in building the culture of the team even to the extent of asking the parents of the players to write to their sons saying what being an England player meant to them.  Out went a number of the old guard, some still playing at a very high level including England hooker Dylan Hartley, considered by many to be by far the best in his position in England.  Hartley had a lengthy checklist of misdemeanours and was finally dropped by Lancaster in 2015 being told that he was too unreliable due to his poor disciplinary record. However, the 2015 World Cup campaign on home soil in England was a huge disappointment to all.  This led to England’s early exit followed soon afterwards by Lancaster’s.


The Jones Approach

The hugely experienced Australian, Jones, who had led Japan to widely-acknowledged (relative) success at the World Cup was then appointed Head Coach.  Jones first act was to pick a captain.  Re-enter Dylan Hartley.  The English press rejoiced in listing Hartley’s colourful rap-sheet. Favourites were: punching, eye-gouging, biting and head-butting. Jones also brought in a much more ruthless approach.  Whereas Lancaster had very much been a “what goes in camp stays in camp” coach, Jones was very public about his expectations of both players and the team as a whole.  He brought a clarity around the requirement for high levels of performance that appeared to trump the previous requirements for high levels of loyalty and values.

Somewhat ironically, whilst clearly being his own man, Jones has in fact continued with much of the young talent that Lancaster introduced into the team.  With the exception of Hartley, the 2016 team is very similar to that from 2015.  What is different is that Jones appears to have sparked a renaissance in some of the same players who are now responding to the performance expectations and far exceeding their previous performance levels.  The performance of the team overall has reached new heights and has developed a mental toughness that previously seemed to have been missing.  Jones also repeatedly displays a ruthlessness in selection offering loyalty only to performance and not reputation.  As shown in both the first and third Tests in Australia, he does not hesitate to make tactical changes which potentially embarrass individuals in the pursuit of the win.  As shown following the victory in the second Test (giving England the first ever series win down under), he drives his players with a huge ambition:  let’s win 3-0 and not settle for the current status.  As we now know – they did.  Interestingly Dylan Hartley appears to be fully reformed, frequently being heard calming down his team mates!


The key lessons

So – rather than culture eating strategy for breakfast is this a case of strategy eating culture for breakfast?  Rather, I would suggest that it is simply a different culture, a culture in which the relentless pursuit of victory (the what) is seen as being more important than the way that it is attained (the how).   Values are clearly important to Jones, but quite different values to those that drove Lancaster.

Perhaps time will show that Lancaster was very much a transformational leader, helping to bring in a great wave of new talent and to eradicate some very poor behaviours that had dogged the England team for several years.  Jones on the other hand has been more transactional in his approach, tightening up tactics, expectations, demanding more of individual players, treating people as individuals and shedding some of the self-consciousness that has held back both the team and the coach in the past.  He appears not to care at all about any press attention or criticism, being brutally honest at all times yet treating the media with something approaching distant amusement.  He lets very little get in the way of the team’s focus on individual and team performances and ultimately the pursuit of victory.


By Nick Thompson
Practice Head: ENGAGE