Why Effective Leadership Starts with Structuring Your Captain Selection Process

A webinar on ‘Captain Selection and Leadership Development’, and the Queensland Reds’ Sam Cordingley, speaks on how their rugby union team looks at leadership philosophies, diversity, captains, and leadership groups
Mim Haigh
Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments

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Captain or leadership group, how can you determine what the right structure for your team is? Who should be appointed as the leader and, what exactly does the person in the leadership role do? These were some of the critical leadership questions we unpacked in our recent open webinar, ‘Choosing Captains and Leadership Development Within Your Team’. The webinar was presented by Bo Hanson, Founder of Athlete Assessments, International Coaching Consultant, 4x Olympian, and 3x Olympic medalist. Alongside Bo, we had the great honor of including special guest Sam Cordingley, a 22-time Wallaby (Australian representative), with a long and distinguished playing career in professional rugby union football, both nationally and internationally. 

Currently, Sam is the General Manager of the Queensland Reds – a powerhouse rugby franchise within Super Rugby, the international game played all around the world. In a relaxed, one-on-one conversation format during the live webinar, Bo interviewed Sam, who has been a client of Athlete Assessments for the past three years. Sam applied his current experience to illustrate critical markers within the leadership framework, his valuable perspective brought depth to the conversation, and raised several issues surrounding leadership and captaincy in action.

While we knew the topic of leadership development and captain selection would be a high priority for all teams and programs, host of the webinar and CEO of Athlete Assessments, Liz Masen shared after the webinar, “We had over 700 people RSVP for this webinar, record attendance for us, proving just how important leadership is. We had a really diverse group of coaches, athletic directors, and sports professionals joining us from all over the world, contributing questions and engaging with the topic in a way that was pertinent to every sport at every level.”

Bo opened the webinar saying,

“Even though we measure wins in different ways, the reality is, that we do keep score”. Speaking directly to everyone on the webinar, he said, “And, we want you all to win more often. So, we hope you can take away some tips from this webinar that will help you develop effective leadership within your team or program, because research has proven that effective leadership makes a massive contribution to your win/loss record.”

He also shared some sobering statistics which highlight the problems surrounding the reality of leadership. He said, 

“97% of head coaches believe that having an effective leader or leadership group is critical to improving their win/loss record, yet less than 10% of those coaches dedicate more than three hours a season to any sort of meaningful leadership development.”

Widening the window on Sam’s contribution to the Queensland Reds, Bo shared more details surrounding his role and responsibilities as General Manager, which sees him working with the entire organization’s coaching staff, their CEO, and liaising with each of the players to manage any and all issues or concerns they may have. On a day-to-day basis, Sam is involved in managing playing rosters, ensuring the list is in good shape, and ultimately bringing a diverse group of people together to work as a team. We are excited and proud to say that the Queensland Reds were the Premiers for the 2021 Australian Super Rugby season which concluded in May.

Sam shared that the Reds have a very young captain, who is dedicated and selfless, and even though he was injured at that point in the season, he continued to travel with the squad. His role remained critical to the team, and he almost became an additional coach. The wider leadership group support decisions made by the captain and coaches, which is so important when conveying messages to a diverse playing group. He noted that the Reds’ squad has a high proportion of players with Pasifika heritage seeing different backgrounds, motivations, and challenges that they live with every day.

Sam said,

“We need to understand those challenges, we need to know what they live with, so we can know how to get the best out of our players.”

Sam shared a decision the club came to in 2015 to focus on developing their own players and leadership group. He shared that Queensland had always been a source of talent, and the club wanted to develop a program which harnessed this. Sam noted proudly that the current playing group is young and 90% of the squad originates from Queensland. Philosophically, he said that with youth comes inexperience, but they had a vision for their leadership development.

Sam says,

“We wanted our leaders to drive internal standards. You don’t always want to hear it from the coach – messages can become mundane very quickly. You need the team’s leaders to live by the standards they set, and our players are heavily involved in setting the team’s standards.”

Discussing the process of electing leaders, Sam explained that although the Reds had a diverse pool of nominations, the captain they eventually chose did not self-nominate. In a word of warning he said the nomination process cannot be all-determining, players have their own motivations for putting certain people forward, they have their own mates within the team. Bo also spoke about Emergent Leadership, where one player reveals themselves as a natural leader of the group and other players happily follow them, the two of them then discussed alternate situations where a coach single-handedly selects a captain.

Comparatively, Sam detailed the way they had worked to develop the young leadership team within the Queensland Reds, he said “Initially we would structure an agenda for the leadership meetings, decide on the regularity of those meetings, what the outcomes would be, how the group would address the issues, and whether they would work with the GM or Head Coach.” Further he said that he would like to see the leadership group challenge one another and that they had been active in establishing connections between their leaders and alumni. He detailed the way the current captain was teaming up with past playing greats to help him through some of the challenges he faced, like leading through injury and from off the field.

The webinar centered on these key elements of leadership:
Define your leadership philosophy

This is the first important, and critical step in establishing or maintaining effective leadership. It helps structure the way the leadership framework operates within your program. Your philosophy answers questions like, “Who should be a leader?” and spells out how they should perform their duties. Importantly, your leadership philosophy will also guide your decision making about captains and leadership groups. It will also provide structure around when, and how often the leaders communicate with the coach, how they interact with the team, and what role they are going to play on competition day.

Leaders model the culture that defines your Match Winning Qualities (Core Values)

Fundamentally, Match Winning Qualities are what your group has decided will take them towards your goal. These qualities in action will define your culture, and the best way to ensure they underline behavior within your program or team is for these qualities to be modeled by the leaders. Often the culture that teams and coaches talk about and say distinguishes their program, is not what is actually part of their everyday behaviors. One of the first questions you can ask to get to the bottom of this situation is, “Does the leader model the culture that defines our Match Winning Qualities?” A leader must live these actions and behaviors to the highest degree. One way to ensure this is happening is to answer the question, “What does modeling our Match Winning Qualities look and sound like, every day, on and off the field?”

Captains Vs. Leadership groups (no wrong or right answer)

The 5:1 rule is a useful guide, meaning there is one leader for every five team members. Think about the practicalities of communicating on and off the field in a team with a big roster, like a softball, baseball, football, or cricket team. Not only would it be difficult for one person to be regularly communicating in a two way capacity with everyone, the reality is, that within teams not everyone gets along. Ensuring that the leadership group contains all elements that exist within the playing group is one way to be sure that everybody’s voice is heard, and critical leadership messages are being conveyed to every member of the team.

Leadership groups DO tend to have more diversity (we value diversity)

In our experience diversity creates the most unique and effective outcomes. Diversity can be visible, but it is important that there is variety in the way your leadership group as a team within the team resolves problems, tackles tasks, communicates, and builds relationships. Collectively this difference unites to develop unique approaches and ensures they are delivered effectively. So not only is diversity important for connecting all team members to the leadership group, it is critical for creating individual action.

Diversity within athlete behavioral profiles gives the variety of perspectives that every team needs, while there is no ideal profile for a leader, countless studies have revealed that leadership is more effective when it mirrors the diversity contained within the team. The most efficient way to determine the different behavioral profiles within your team, is for each athlete to complete the Athlete Assessments AthleteDISC Profile. The AthleteDISC Profile, generated from each athlete’s answers to a 12-minute online survey, details how they prefer to communicate, build relationships, the pace they approach tasks and importantly, how they solve problems. A profile will also give an insight into what each athlete is likely to do in a situation which induces stress. The information contained within each profile can then be used by both the coaching team and the athlete to build team chemistry and increase self-awareness.

Bo says, “We’ve seen really great leadership from all different types of profiles. The most important thing is that we understand our behaviors and how to adjust and adapt. For example, we know when we need to put our ‘D’ hats on and drive standards, or bring energy to the team like an ‘I’. When we can see that one of our team members is struggling, we canput our ‘S’ hat on and have a one-on-one conversation with them, and we must remember the ‘C’ for the structure in the strategy of the game plan.”

A Captain’s role is critical

Once you have decided on a leadership structure, the next step is nominating exactly what tasks you would like the leader to carry out, and how you want them to go about it. Bo shared his perspective, 

“The role of a captain is to facilitate discussions, take the frontline role, meet with leadership group on a weekly basis to align, share the feelings of the team, and connect with coaches.”. 

Bo continued, 

“The role of the leadership group is to support the captain, but they also need their own role description to create clarity… You can make the leadership role responsible for whatever you want, but if we haven’t defined our philosophy, if we don’t have our Match Winning Qualities, if we don’t have a role for the captain and the leaders, actually going out and selecting them becomes really challenging. So, we recommend a formal process and structure surrounding leadership.”

Further he added,

“Having a formal, well-structured process allows you to change and develop leadership to suit your program over time, it also adds weight to the role, and the clearly articulated role description with weekly tasks, significant ramifications, and obligations, stops the position turning into a popularity contest.”

Bo reinforced that the quality of leadership depends heavily on the process surrounding it; how clearly the philosophy is defined, whether the Match Winning Qualities resonate through the culture and are lived to the highest degree by the leaders and ultimately, whether the role is clarified and all team members are well educated on the role of leadership.

Bo concluded,

“We are always working around this concept of involvement, ownership, and accountability. The more we can create that level of involvement with all people who are impacted and contributing to the outcome, the more likely that they’ll have ownership over whatever decisions are made, and the more likely that they’ll be accountable for the actions that have to take.”

Where to from here?

If you’d like to learn more and watch back the webinar, you can access the recording here.

If you are not currently a client and would like copies of any of the information, or if you are interested in the work we do and how it can benefit your program, we welcome you to contact us.

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Being a team captain means having an important leadership role in the team. Often, teams have more than the standard captain and vice-captain duo, with a senior group of leaders appointed to steer the team from within. It is no surprise that research into sport teams’ success emphasizes the importance of the role of Team Captain.

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