World Cup winner Martin Johnson’s leadership masterclass

England rugby World Cup winner Martin Johnson says that leadership is about far more than oratory


As a rugby player I hate corporate- speak and buzzwords. The most valuable thing is the unspoken bond of the team, which enables you to achieve against the odds. In sport – and business – you can waste a hell of a lot of time talking.

Success is about setting an example in everything you do and putting in the right level of preparation. England’s World Cup winning team were skilful and talented, but we weren’t the most talented or skilful in the world. It was the work ethic, desire and application that set us apart. Careful preparation makes you a more professional outfit, instills confidence and ensures that when it really matters – nobody backs out. And that came from the top.

I’m fortunate to have met some great sportsmen and great business people. And often, the guys who have achieved most are the quietest, humblest and most dedicated – just unassuming, normal people. Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson, for example. As a result everyone gets caught up playing 25% better.

In the World Cup Final against Australia the score took care of itself – but only because we’d taken care of the process in the weeks, months and years preceding that November night in Sydney. Things will always go awry, as they did that night, and you’ll only have the ability to adapt if everyone knows their job. Sounds pretty obvious, but it’s a failing in many businesses.

Equally, communication is crucial. People can’t always see what effect their efforts have had and don’t feel they share in the reward. When we won in Sydney I was almost happier for the rest of the guys because the squad knew they’d done it together.

In a team game there needs to be an understanding that a little bit more here and there will set one person up for the clincher. For us, when the forwards put in extra effort it opens it up for the backs – it’s a knock-on effect. The lineout and drives that led to Jonny’s kick are a perfect example.

On the pitch I’ll have my head down and backside in the air, so I’m not exactly able to direct play all the time. By apportioning responsibility to the people you work with though, you eventually know that you can rely on them, without having to say a word.

The position Jonny plays is a position of leadership. I may have been captain, but I was almost on the shop floor, while he played the chief executive’s role. He runs the show. And England have captains for every area of the game – the scrum, line-out, two in defence and senior players all take on leadership duties. This approach to leadership takes some of the pressure off me and ensures everyone feels they are contributing to the team.

I didn’t become a different person when I was made captain. When I was made captain of the Lions I suddenly had to speak, but there’s no point trying to be Will Carling for the sake of it. I played to my strengths and got others to play to theirs.

Winning the World Cup was the greatest moment of my career. Losing it would have been the most disappointing. And they’re not that far apart.

Martin Johnson was speaking to Growing Business as part of his new ambassadorial role for Hewlett-Packard.

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