Leading with love and belonging

Love One Another

We are delighted to be able to share this blog post from Don Barrell, England Rugby’s Head of Performance Pathways and Programmes


High Performance Report

Leading Edge’s High Performance Insights report, published a few weeks ago, is something that I think delivers on the idea of ‘who’s looking after you; who’s guiding your development?’.

What I mean by this is that when people reach a senior position in any job, they’re often exposed to far fewer thoughts, ideas and challenges. People come to these experienced leaders for guidance and to seek ‘the answers’, so if the leaders themselves don’t proactively seek out new thinking, it won’t just land on their desk. They need to find people, or resources, to guide their development.

High Performance Insights is such a resource: insightful research with expert commentary and case studies from industry leaders who have faced complex challenges in the past two years – and continue to do so. At England Rugby, I’m privileged to be the Head of Performance Programmes and Pathways, where I performance manage the Regional Academy and Pathway programmes in both the male and female games. My reflections on this research link to both sport and business environments.

High performance drivers

The organisational shift piece around belonging is one of five high performance themes explored in the report. In performance environments, ensuring a real sense of belonging has been identified as a differentiator. An environment with a strong culture around belonging, one that’s moving its D&I programmes on from the sometimes-standardised checkbox scenarios, is one where people will want to stay and work harder to bring the best version of themselves.

This progression from D&I to belonging is important in a performance environment, where it’s easy to be transient but what teams and organisations really want is long-term engagement and for people to have the time and space to feel that sense of belonging.

If you really want people to belong, you need to promote the benefits of belonging and hardwire it into a team or business. As showed up through Leading Edge’s research, the number 1 barrier to developing the necessary culture is a fundamental lack of understanding of the benefits. When the benefits are clear to everyone, and organisations dedicate the space and time to achieve the culture – embracing the challenge that comes with it – then diverse teams with a breadth of experience and mindsets will be able to perform highly.

Another area of high performance (one that I see people struggle with) is around leading with love. And if you think about it, showing love and care through leadership isn’t that different from showing dedication to creating a culture of belonging.

Love comes through curiosity to care

Love One Another

Ask someone if it’s important to lead with love, and you might get back one of those elongated ‘yes’ responses that are loaded with hesitancy around practicalities and delivery. They’ll most likely be looking for a bit of encouragement and vision.

It’s common to hear people talk about teams being like a ‘family,’ but stop short at thinking about the love and care that this needs to be real. So I often encourage people to picture family interactions and think about the types of conversations they have, and how the people they hold the highest standards for are the people they want the best for. With family and friends, you can say things with more clarity than you often can in business because there’s trust embedded in the relationship and it’s easier, and more comfortable, to show vulnerability.

This encompasses leading with love – stretching yourself to support those you care most about, perhaps even by telling them they are wrong. Leading with love is about moving beyond the transactional and leadership role into relationships with depth, having the curiosity to care, to really understand teams and what motivates and drives them. This curiosity builds trust – and in performance environments, trust is needed very early on for strength when the pressure’s on.

Back to the question of ‘who’s looking after you and guiding your development?’, and I view this report as playing it’s part to do just that. If you haven’t already taken a look, it’s well worth a read.

Don Barrell



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