Rugby leadership… military style

Unconscious bias, and how it plays out in leadership, was a main theme of a pretty special 48 hours I spent with 14 Premiership Rugby Academy Managers recently.

Leading Edge is working with England Rugby and Premiership Rugby on a development journey for these Academy Managers, and I’ve been privileged to support these guys for coming up to four years now.

PREMIER RUGBY AND RUGBY UNION (RFU) DEVELOPMENT MANAGERS<br /> HMS Excellent and HMS Collingwood have hosted a team of Premier Rugby and Rugby Football Union (RFU) Development Managers as part of a leadership visit aimed at encouraging young semi-professional sports people to consider a career in the Royal Navy or Royal Marines.<br /> On day one of the two-day challenge, twelve Premiership Rugby Academy managers and their senior colleagues were put through their paces in the Royal Navy’s Damage Repair Instruction Unit (DRIU).<br /> The DRIU simulates a ship taking on water at sea after impact; the suspended metal unit fills up with water as those inside practice repairing damaged compartments and blocking holes. All the while, the unit is rocking from side to side in simulation of a ship rolling at sea.<br /> The second day saw the team travel to HMS Collingwood where they participated in a low-ropes leadership and communication challenge.<br /> Participants in the team activities were also the RFU Head of International Performance, Dean Ryan, the RFU Head of Regional Academies, Don Barrell and the Premier Rugby Head of Elite Performance and Player Development, Corin Palmer.<br /> Consent held: FRPU (East)


For this development session, we were in the hands of (or the boots of, to be more precise!) the Royal Marines at their training base in Fareham with an objective to help the Academy Managers better understand how bias can affect a coach’s view of leadership.

In rugby, as in other sports and in business, ‘leadership’ means different things and comes in different guises. Is the ‘best/strongest’ leader the one who stirs the most emotion, shouts the loudest, approaches challenges most creatively, or demonstrates the best values?  The answer is… there isn’t one answer.

We kicked off our first day with a goldfish-bowl-style discussion around leadership. Half the managers talked while the other half listened and noted where a comment might indicate an unconscious bias about what makes a good leader. Unconscious bias is difficult to spot in yourself, so this priming session helped the managers to be aware of their own bias ahead of our first military-style activity that put leadership to the test – in a highly pressured situation.

The guys were introduced to ‘DRIU’ (the Phoenix Damage Repair and Instructional Unit – known throughout the Navy as DRIU, pronounced ‘drew’), which is a mock-up of a flooding ship which rocks and rolls as sailors try to plug gaps in the hull using wood. Working together as a team is an absolute must, and this involved trusting each other as they were held underwater – in freezing water – to do whatever was needed to plug the gaps. This type of high-pressure experience naturally shows bias.

The following day’s activity was less ‘high pressure’ and more ‘low ropes’. For anyone familiar with military training, this obstacle course exercise challenges lateral thinking and, again, is guaranteed to show how leadership preferences and bias can play out.

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Both DRIU and the low rope exercise are used by the Royal Navy for leadership training, and it was so beneficial – and a huge privilege – for the Academy Managers to experience how leadership is trained in a completely different environment from the one they experience every day.

One of Leading Edge’s firm beliefs is that being able to dance takes more than just learning the steps. What I loved about this most recent development journey with the guys is that they were able to learn in an action-oriented, very real way. Learning experientially is all about having the chance to actually dance the steps, not just learn them.

But it wasn’t all flooding ships and challenging rope obstacle courses!   We had the amazing experience of a tour of HMS Victory and a Naval dinner, dining with senior ranking officers in a historic setting and continuing the discussion/debate around what good leadership looks like.  And we bunked down on nearby HMS Bristol as crew, given time to think how we might feel in that environment for months at a time and how that might affect our leadership style and bias.

The whole experience certainly wasn’t an everyday one for any of us – not for the Academy guys and not for me. Part of our culture at Leading Edge is to value moments together. For me, there were some standout moments over the two days, but particularly I valued being alongside rugby guys that I have respect for and who do jobs that many of us (me included) dream of.

Huge thanks to the team at Fareham for such an amazing experience.

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