A former world champion in both 15s and sevens, Lawrence Dallaglio is one of the greatest captains that rugby has seen. Here he explains what makes a successful leader
Lawrence Dallaglio was 25 when he became England captain at the start of the Clive Woodward era in 1997. He proved a natural for the job, leading his country on 22 occasions, whilst he also holds the record for the most English Premiership matches as a captain – 142 for Wasps during a golden age for the club. Leadership consultant Andy Bird, author of a new book called The Inspired Leader, interviewed Dallaglio about his leadership insights and here Rugby World publishes what this legendary rugby figure had to say…
Lawrence, what does leadership mean to you?
“In rugby there has to be someone prepared to make a decision, one way or another. I’ve found a lot of people are quite risk averse and wait for others to do something first.
As a leader, when you’re faced with several different directions you can go in, you need the confidence to say: ‘We’re going to go that way.’ Now, it may not be the right way, and you have to acknowledge that. But someone has got to make a decision; you have to be prepared to put your marker down: ‘We haven’t got much time, let’s get on with it.’”
How did you handle becoming a team captain at such a young age?
“I felt a real sense of honour when I was given the captaincy, because you know there’s so much hierarchy and heritage involved. There were people in the team who were a lot older and more experienced than me, so in many ways it was quite daunting. You’re suddenly leading a team of people who might be looking at you and saying: ‘What’s he doing? Why would I listen to him?’”
But I felt I just had to grab it by the scruff of the neck and go with it. So, for me it was about drawing on the strengths of everyone in the team.
You have to recognise, as a leader, that you certainly don’t have all the answers yourself. Neither do you necessarily have all the skills you need. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do with what you’ve got, but never be afraid to pull other people in. That’s the best way to get results.”
What do you mean by that exactly?
“It’s important to give other people responsibility and let them take the lead role at times – and also some of the pressure. Some people naturally shy away from it; some people are probably chomping at the bit to take on more. You have to recognise that and dial people up and down a bit. It’s about getting the chemistry right within the team.
Success is never down to one person and I don’t think it should ever be attributed to one person, although it often is. And neither should failure be down to one person.
You certainly can’t put yourself on a pedestal. Really good leaders acknowledge the contribution of everyone. It’s about having the selflessness to be able to share the responsibility and the success, because it’s the greatest feeling in the world when you achieve something and you can share it with other people.”
What else did you learn about finding success as a leader?
“Sport is a results-driven business. Ultimately you’re judged as a leader based on what you achieve and the scores are there for everyone to see, every match, every week. It’s about having the ability to not just get the best out of yourself – which is really important by the way – but also to get the best out of your colleagues.
The best way to lead is by example. That doesn’t mean being overly brave or anything stupid like that. It’s about doing your job to the highest possible standard. If you can be one of the very best operators in the world in your position, then that’s going to make a lot of people aspire to get there as well. If you’re talking about driving standards and moving things forward, you’ve got to be moving forward yourself as well. That is fundamental.
The other thing about leading is that you need a clear understanding of what you want to achieve. You set yourself a target or a benchmark and then everything you do has to live up to that vision. If you want to be the best in the world at something, you can’t kid yourself that you’ll get there by doing what everyone else does. You have to decide, as a leader, how you’re going to drive towards your targets and how everyone else is going to drive towards them.
You then have to measure yourself against those benchmarks every step of the way. You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Well, if that’s what we want to achieve…’”
How do you go about doing that in practice?
“There has to be an honesty and a frankness that you live by in the feedback you give to each other. Having the uncomfortable conversations together allows you to move forward and grow quickly. It’s not easy but it’s really important to get to a position of trust amongst a group where you feel that you can open up, because that’s the only way you learn.”
Where did your own inspiration come from as a leader?
“A lot of my aspirations and goal-setting came from my childhood. I was given a lot of care and consideration and love, but also the opportunity to have real ambition in life.
My parents, particularly my mother, were adamant that you should set your goals really high – shoot for the moon and you’ll reach the stars. That gave me the confidence and the belief that anything you want to achieve is possible in life. I know that sounds a bit fancy but it’s not actually. It gives you a platform from which you feel anything can be attainable.
If you’re going to do something, you should do it to the best of your ability. That’s key. A lot of people end up doing something that they obviously have a passion for but how often do they ask themselves, every day: ‘How well am I doing this?’ and then push it to the limit.
So it all started for me at a young age, but then you get inspired by other people along the way. There’s nothing quite like a competitive environment, where you’re working alongside your peers. You get inspired by them because you want to keep driving the standards up.
Leadership for me is a two-way process. It’s about challenging people that work or play with you, but it’s also about them challenging you too. That’s how you develop and become a much stronger person.”
Are there any particular experiences that proved important moments of inspiration?
“I lost my sister when I was 16 and that had a profound impact on me (Francesca was 19 when she died in the 1989 Marchioness disaster). It became a constant source of motivation. Firstly, to try to ease my own pain – it gave me something to get behind. Secondly, for my family, who were in a very difficult place. Life changed after that, for all of them.
“So I was driven by a desire to bring some enjoyment or something back into their lives. It just became personal. I was trying to put all the emotion, everything, into trying to honour the memory of my sister and to make life better for my parents. Every time I had any kind of worry or anxiety, or any kind of challenge when I was not quite sure about moving things forward, I would always use that as a real driving purpose.”
Has this sense of purpose influenced your leadership in other ways?
“For me it was more than just a job. It became much more spiritual and emotional and I was able to tap into the emotional feelings inside to drive something that became greater than just about the rugby.
When you’re up against the very best, you’re kind of neck and neck, because everyone trains really hard and everyone works really hard. Where you can get an edge over an evenly matched opponent is through what’s going on in your head and your heart. If you can find the right emotional touchpoints in people, it doesn’t matter what’s being said in the changing room next door – they’ve got no chance because the game is very emotional.
That’s why great teams get beaten by teams that aren’t quite as great. They have found an emotional hook that takes their performance to a different, super-charged level. Everyone’s got that performance – no matter how well you play, there’s always another level you can play at. You just have to try and find that emotional hook.”
When the time came for you to retire from rugby, how did you go about handling the transition?
“If I’m honest, I was actually quite excited by the transition. Rugby was very kind to me and I had a brilliant time. But you also have to sacrifice a huge amount and the other people around me had to sacrifice a huge amount.
So rather than thinking ‘What can I do now?’, it was more like: ‘Wow, what can’t I do now?’ The glass is not half-empty, it’s half-full, because rugby got in the way of a lot of things.
I knew I had pursued a career in rugby up to the age of 35 and I’d got to the top of my profession. So I reckon I could get to the top of any profession if I put my mind to it. You have to take that confidence, that belief, and the experience and skill-set you’ve built up, and then start applying them to something else.”
You’ve ended up with a fascinating portfolio of activities, from TV punditry to setting up a charity and a sports marketing business with BBH. Is that working out well for you?
“Yes, I suppose I’m in a nice position in that I’ve got a few different things going on. I like the variety. I was always fascinated by the world of business and even when I was playing, I was very passionate about giving something back.”
Can you tell me more about your charitable activities?
“With success comes responsibility. I’m a firm believer that you arrive with nothing in this world and you leave with nothing, but you can make an impact during the bit in-between in lots of different ways. It’s not just about making money and providing for yourself and the people around you. There are other ways of leaving your mark and I think once you’ve taken something you should give and pass it on.
That’s what led me to set up the Dallaglio Foundation. It’s been going for nine years now and we work with young disadvantaged people who have been excluded from mainstream education. Using rugby and the values of rugby as a hook, I deliver a programme that starts by giving these guys back some self-confidence and a bit of pride. We then take them on a three-year journey to get them back into full-time education or employment.
So many of these kids come from a chaotic background and all they need is a bit of support or help or encouragement. I’m really passionate about it – I genuinely believe there is a problem in society and this is one way of helping deal with it.”
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To finish, if you could give other leaders one tip to help them get better at inspiring other people, what would it be?
“For me, it’s about the way you carry yourself. The best way to inspire people is to give them positive energy. In the same way as you feed off other people, other people feed off you. In every interaction you have with people, try to have a positive interaction.
You can’t always think about yourself all the time – you have to put other people first. The greatest thing in life is giving and it doesn’t have to be a present – you can give your time, your feelings, your thoughts. So that, for me, is the best way to inspire people – just give them your energy.”
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* Andy Bird’s book, The Inspired Leader: How Leaders can Discover, Experience and Maintain their Inspiration, is published by Bloomsbury Business, RRP £14.99. Buy it here.