Talent & teams
How to develop and empower leadership
We could all learn a thing or two about teamwork and leadership from Rugby great, John Eales.

John Eales AM is a former Australian rugby union player and the most successful captain in the history of Australian rugby. He took part in two successful World Cup campaigns, led Australia through four successive Bledisloe Cup wins, and two successful seasons of Tri-Nations fixtures.

John Eales at our AirTree portfolio breakfast in Melbourne

After retiring from rugby, John founded the Mettle Group to advise major Australian corporates such as Westpac and Qantas on their leadership strategies. He currently sits on the boards of Flight Centre Travel Group, Magellan Financial Group, and Palladium (amongst others). He is also a frequent columnist with The Australian newspaper.

The discussion ranged from how to constantly improve on your leadership skills, to bringing the concept of “recovery time” into the workplace.

Here are a few key highlights:

Developing as a leader

The Cuban novelist Anais Nin said — “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”.

As a leader, it’s important to be acutely aware of the context you bring to the table, and to understand the lens through which others view the situation. In a rapidly changing world, context needs to be constantly refreshed.

Without this context, senior leaders fall into bad habits and base decisions on:

  • What’s most readily available — the “availability heuristic
  • An “anchor” fact (holding on for far too long) — the “anchoring effect
  • Information that supports their current thinking (e.g. our news feed is only from one side of the fence and confirms the views we already hold) — “confirmation bias

In addition to being acutely aware of others, it’s important to be self-aware.

There is a line between super-confidence and arrogance… the difference is respect. It’s a delicate line to tread.

Great leaders are constantly challenging themselves — they’re agitated. They avoid the people who just tell them what they want to hear, and surround themselves with those who challenge them with what they need to hear.

To “put a ding in the universe”, you’ll need to sacrifice things — and pats on the back might be one of them.

Though be careful that you don’t sacrifice too much — if you go hard you will feel pain. There’s no finish line in business so you need to build in your own moments of replenishment. Recovery is what sport does right.

Developing your team’s culture

Your culture is your written (company by-laws) and unwritten rules, it is your systems and symbols (the jersey you wear).

As you grow your team — make sure your culture is by design, not by default.

It’s important that you:

  • Teach people the how and why — context gives people purpose
  • Aim for behaviours that encourage outcomes
  • Make choices — set the barriers for “what we don’t do”
  • Find your own ways get together and connect (it doesn’t have to be Friday night drinks or ping pong)

John Singleton sums it up well — “make the complex simple and the simple compelling”. Don’t overdo it.

The All Blacks team culture — “Sweeping the shed” — helped them to become a global superpower

Also, don’t forget that one team doesn’t always mean one big happy family.

You’re bound to have growing pains and angst as you bring new people on.

The key is to move fast, while still giving good feedback. Don’t leave it too late to step into the harder side of managing people. It’s ok to challenge each other, but make sure it’s diversity of views, not diversity of direction.

In the tough times remember: It’s not permanent. It’s not personal. It’s not pervasive of all areas of your life.

Building your team

One thing leaders sometimes fail to appreciate is that their team wants to know they’re human.

Don’t be afraid to show you can’t do it all. Knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Before you hire people to support you, make sure you know exactly what it is your team stands for, and rigorously assess if new candidates fit that criteria.

In summary

The session was a great reminder that leadership and culture are the DNA of success.

There’s no playbook for success as a leader, but if you focus on — being agitated, connections, being tough, playing by the rules, having a healthy mind in a healthy body, and staying composed — it’s a good start.

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