A male rugby team covered in dirt, playing rugby on a muddy field.

The worlds of rugby and business might, on the face of it, appear light years apart. After all, what can managing complex contracts, liaising with clients and meeting sales targets possibly have in common with chasing an oval-shaped ball around a muddy pitch?

The answer is; quite a lot actually. Whether one is looking for success on the rugby field or in the boardroom, the key to both often comes down to being part of a great team.

A successful team with the right blend of talent, experience and personality can add up to be greater than the sum of its parts. This is as true for rugby as it is for business and without that great team, victory becomes impossible.

Interestingly enough, for two such varied activities, some of the core tenets of team building in rugby are also highly effective and relevant in the business world.

Leading by Example

All teams need great leaders, be it the captain on the pitch, the manager of a small team in the office, or the CEO of a multinational corporation.

Being a great leader is about more than just making big decisions, it is about leading by example. One of the most iconic images from the England rugby team’s historic victory at the 2003 Rugby World Cup was the sight of captain Martin Johnson’s towering frame at the centre of a rolling maul, steering the pack, while also communicating and listening to the referee. The Telegraph went on to dub him “Leader of the Pack”, and so too in the business world, a manager can inspire their team by leading by example.

This can range from anything from being punctual and happy to put in extra hours, to demonstrate a willingness to muck in when the workload gets heavy or showing compassion and understanding when it comes to dealing with matters of a personal nature.

Knowing your role

When one thinks of rugby players, images of great colossal hulks are often conjured up. Those who appreciate the intricacies of the game understand that different positions on the rugby field actually require a unique skill set, mental approach and physical attributes.

A fullback might be able to play fly-half but a lock will never be a hooker or a prop.

So too in business, it is not enough to rely on a jack of all trades. The people with the right skills have to be recruited into the right positions and as well as being an expert in their particular area, possess an awareness of how they fit into the wider functions of the team.

If you are the person recruiting for the team, it is vital to possess a precise understanding of the company’s core values and what it stands for, so as to recruit the type of people who naturally fit this profile.

This is why Johnson didn’t simply consider himself the captain, with the rest of the team playing under him. Instead, he talked about having a ‘captain’ for every area of the game.

Setting aside ego to serve a higher purpose

In the Japanese language, there is a word, ‘Ikigai’ which means “your reason for getting up in the morning”. Many believe that that the more one can understand and truly articulate their ‘Ikigai’, the longer and more fulfilling their life will be.

The world of professional rugby is full of examples of teams achieving greatness by putting aside personal glory to focus on something much bigger.

The legendary all-conquering New Zealand All Blacks often talk about ‘leaving the jersey in a better place than you found it’, reminding themselves that when they put on the jersey, they are representing all those who have gone before them, as well as those who follow.

They also continue to maintain the humble tradition of “sweeping the sheds”, which refers to the practice that no matter how big the match, or the result, the players always leave the dressing room in the state they found it in.

When Stuart Lancaster took over the England team. He asked all the parents to write to their sons, telling them what it meant to have them playing for England. He also asked ex-players to write down what it meant to them to represent their country.

Appreciating a higher purpose or mission can also be of vital importance in the corporate world, and can inspire team members in both older, more established companies and start-ups alike.

Those working for older or brand name companies may be inspired by the history, traditions and values of the organisation, while those at startups may be attracted by the allure of growing success from the grassroots, or disrupting an existing market.

Finally, anyone who has experienced the upheaval that can come from a merger might do well to learn from the mentality of the British and Irish Lions, who every four years, set aside the historic, deeply felt rivalries of the home nations to form one of the most elite rugby teams in the world.

Focus on the Controllables

One of the most interesting features of the sport of rugby is how the odd shape of the ball leads to it bouncing entirely unpredictably. Often the same kicking motion can lead to a momentous surge up the field or the ball skewing wildly out of play.

The point is that the outcome cannot always be predicted but it can be responded to.

The same is true of building teams. People are not machines; they are unpredictable, so all a good manager can do is respond appropriately to any given situation, maintaining values of professionalism and compassion.

The same is true of business as a whole. No one can halt a downturn in the economy or a shift in the market. All a good leader can do is put themselves in a position to be able to respond to a variety of different outcomes, as and when they arise.

All in all, whether it be on the rugby field, the boardroom, the shop floor or a city centre office space, a cohesive team who understand and appreciate each other’s roles, and naturally buy into the wider purpose of the team and organisation, will almost always outperform a group of highly skilled individuals wrapped up in the pursuit of personal gain.

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