Think of a leader. What comes to mind? Perhaps it’s an image of a man or woman in an expensive suit delivering a presentation or commanding a room. You probably don’t think of a muscular man (or woman) in tight shorts, covered in mud barging other muscular people of the way. But in rugby, if that person has the ball, then they are the leader.

So far, the Rugby World Cup has been full of suspense and surprises. But aside from the entertainment value, you might be surprised to hear that there’s a valuable leadership lesson to be learnt from the sport of rugby, namely the idea of interchangeable leadership.

On the rugby pitch the team that wins will be not necessarily be the one with the best players, but rather the one with the best strategy and the one that works best together – as seen in the example of Japan’s smashing defeat of South Africa in 2015. Teamwork is clearly important, but so too is trusting that each player knows what they’re doing and embracing the attitude that the person who has the ball is the leader at that time. They will decide, using their best judgement, what the next move should be and use their skills to get it done.

How does this relate to success in business? 

In a business, just like in rugby there will be a clear management structure for the overall approach and direction of the team. But similarly, everyone within the team is also a leader in his or her own right. In rugby, leadership is exchanged every time the ball is passed, in business leadership should be passed on just as fluidly depending on the context, or the skills needed at the time. However, unlike in a successful rugby team, this doesn’t always happen in the workplace. Instead, people often get fixated on their individual roles and work according to the pre-prescribed structure they have been indoctrinated into, i.e. this person is the manager, therefore, I should always defer to them. While the ‘manager’ might have overall responsibility for a project or outcome, everyone in the team should be viewed as a leader. If you’re not in a formal leadership position you might be scoffing to yourself at that statement. ‘Me, a leader? Not likely’. But no matter what role you are currently in, if you are offering your expertise in a particular situation, then you are the leader.

Of course, this is not to say that your leadership is going to be respected, either by fellow colleagues or higher management, and this is the major issue in business. While in rugby everyone (generally) has the same goal – to win the match, this is not always so in a business setting. For whatever reason, there will be times in a business when not everyone is pulling together to achieve the same outcome. This may be due to poor management or, quite often, because people simply don’t know what the goal is. This then makes it very hard to establish a culture of cohesion and teamwork, and without that there will be little trust and consequently a tendency to ‘watch out for number one’. Without trust and teamwork, the concept of interchangeable leadership will never thrive. Because people are simply looking out for themselves or not invested in the long term success of the whole team or business, they may resist the input of others, denying them the chance to offer their valuable insights, and ultimately damaging the success of the company.

So how should interchangeable leadership work?

In rugby it’s clear; as Rory Underwood once said; “the leader is the one with the ball” so whoever has the ball is calling the next shot, and they are the leader. But in business it’s not always so clear cut. Or is it? Interchangeable leadership is in essence about trusting people to be able do their job, and utilising their skills as appropriate. In a situation where you need financial advice, for example, then the leader of that situation will be the person with the financial knowledge and skills to answer your question. Even those who are in relatively junior roles should be seen as leaders within their area of expertise; the office junior might not earn as much as the CEO, but when it comes to office practices that they deal with daily, they are the leader and their advice should be sought. The key here is in utilising the skills of your team when they are needed, and encouraging people to take responsibility for the things they have knowledge about. Not only does this help create a well-oiled business machine (assuming communication is managed properly), but it also helps staff at all levels recognise their importance in the business and feel valued by their team, and when it comes to improving productivity and promoting better outcomes, there’s no better strategy to winning.

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