Austin Healey’s art of leadership

The rugby hero brings the lessons he learned on the sports field into business life

Austin Healey played rugby union for Leicester Tigers, England and the British Lions – and starred in Strictly Come Dancing. Speaking at Entrepreneur Country Accelerate Forum, he revealed his lessons on leadership
Leaders build teamwork

When I played for England, our vision was all about thinking about the guy next to you. When I suffered from post-natal depression following the birth of my daughter, for example, my teammates were there for me.

If you are in a team, effective leadership can allow you to build confidence together. At Leicester, when we were on a losing streak, we put our arms round each other, closed off the outside world and got back to basics.

Teamwork builds trust. At our best, we could be getting kicked in the head in a ruck during a tough match, and we knew someone would be there behind us to back us up.

Leaders create a brand

At my club, Leicester, we were all about living the brand. It was about more than just pulling on a shirt.

Our coach, Dean Richards made sure that no bad news ever left our training field, so we could be completely honest with each other. This meant that no-one ever knew any of our internal problems — the outside world thought we were the tightest unit imaginable, so the opposition was often beaten before they turned up at our ground.

Once, when Leicester won the championship, we went straight to the bar and started celebrating with the supporters, rather than going to the official function that had been laid on for us. That was our brand – great friendships, everyone in it together.

Leaders forge a culture

With Leicester, the leaders created a culture that people aspired too. England did this too – if someone was dropped, they weren’t able to stay at the hotel.  Other players told me that getting dropped was a horrible experience (thankfully I never got dropped myself!)

At Leicester and England, our culture dictated that winning was the only thing. Just before my 30th birthday, we lost for the first time in three years at (Leicester’s home ground) Welford Road. My wife wanted me to go out, but I wouldn’t go out – that was all due to our wining-is-everything culture. (She eventually forced me to go to my own surprise birthday party, where I ended up dressed as a woman!)

Leaders care about the details

Clive Woodward (England’s World Cup-winning coach) was all about attention to detail, and breaking the day down to the final second. That happened in the World Cup – he’d broken it down to the final second to the final day.

When Jonny Wilkinson, the man who ultimately kicked the points which won the World Cup, was practising drop goals, they stood with hosepipes firing at him from either side.

Clive wanted us to maximise output 24 hours a day, and we were always able to get advice. With England we got an eye coach, a kicking coach, and loads of other specialist coaches. Every day during the World Cup, we had to take an amino acid at 4am. We even had alarm calls sent to our houses. Each of those little things mattered in the end.

Leaders breed confidence

Clive Woodward was determined to empower confidence. Once, the night before we played New Zealand at the 1999 World Cup, he told us he wouldn’t want any of their players in his team.

He went through all the players on each side and said he’d prefer the English guy, and it gave us great confidence – although he struggled to justify preferring me over the great Jonah Lomu!

Leaders create new leaders

Ultimately, the leaders in the England team fostered diversity, allowing players to develop and become less introverted. Characters like Jason Leonard, Matt Dawson and Lawrence Dallaglio were all leaders – the team was full of them.

With good leadership, everyone’s got a clear part to play. Once, with Leicester, I went into a ruck to battle for the ball, and our prop Darren Garforth stamped on me! I asked him why he’d done it, and he said: “That’s my job! No-one does my job!” By going into a ruck, I’d assumed a role Garforth knew as his – our team had a clearly defined structure, and I paid the price for breaking it!

Leaders think clearly under pressure

In every environment, no matter how thoroughly you prepare, you get something that falls outside your comfort zone. Handling pressure is about thinking clearly and controlling the ‘controllables’, and leaders play a key part in this.

Once, when we were playing Wales at the Millennium stadium, they lined up life-sized cardboard cut-outs of our opposite numbers in our cubicles. Our captain, Martin Johnson, lined them up in the tunnel, and made each of us punch our opposing cut-out, and then turn to face the Welsh. That was true leadership.

Now an active angel investor, speaker and match analyst, Austin Healey was speaking in partnership with Entrepreneur Country, an ongoing programme of events for business owners spearheaded by Julie Meyer. For more details on the event, please visit  


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