6 December 2017

Reaching Out: The Benefits of External Influence

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

It takes guts to be a leader. You need to be ruthless in your decision making, confident in your strategies and bold when managing individuals under one unified ethos. But what about the bravery that is required when admitting that you may not have all the answers? Is this a sign of weakness or is this in fact what separates the good from the very best? With the help of two highly respectable coaches, who spoke at the 2017 Elite Sport Summit, CONQA explores the benefits of seeking the advice from external influencers.

Arsene Wenger has been in charge at Arsenal since 1996 and revolutionised not only the club, but English football as well. However, after a few unsuccessful years many fans and pundits are calling for his head. Could the solution Wenger is searching for lie in an unlikely place?

Arsene Wenger has been in charge at Arsenal since 1996 and revolutionised not only the club, but English football as well. However, after a few unsuccessful years many fans and pundits are calling for his head. Could the solution Wenger is searching for lie in an unlikely place?

Albert Einstein may be best known as the brilliant theoretical physicist who developed the theory or relativity and whose mass-energy equivalence formula E=mc2 is now synonymous with scientific genius, but he was also a great philosophical thinker.

As a man of profound thought, his essays and letters reveal a mind that was note merely occupied with science but deeply humane concepts as well.

In 1936, Einstein penned a short essay titled 'Self-Portrait' where he muses on the notion of self-awareness and consciousnesses. He begins with the opening paragraph:

Of what is significant in one’s own existence one is hardly aware, and
it certainly should not bother the other fellow. What does a fish know
about the water in which he swims all his life?

What Einstein is suggesting is that close proximity to a subject can limit one’s perspective. That by taking one's surroundings for granted, as a result of longevity or preoccupation with other variables, one can lose sight of what is plainly obvious to an external observer. Though it was perhaps not his intention, Einstein's philosophical message can be applied to the concept of leadership.

When a manager or coach is fully invested in a project or has been involved with the same team for many years, it can be difficult to view a challenge with a fresh perspective. In elite sport, that can result in stagnant leadership, complacent athletes and an apathetic attitude throughout the organisation.

So the solution is simple, right? If fresh eyes are needed to navigate a particular obstacle, all a manager or coach needs to do is call on outside help.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done as competitive leaders of elite sports teams are often filled with egos that can inhibit their willingness to engage with an external influencer.

According to Warren Kennaugh, a behavioural strategist and author with more than twenty years’ experience working with elite athletes and organisations such as the AFL, the Australian national rugby union team, PGA golfers and others, the greatest inhibitor to seeking internal help is pride.

“The biggest challenge in any industry is that we fall in love with our own industry,” Kennaugh told CONQA at this year’s Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town in October. “We can fall in love with our own processes. We get stuck in our way of doing things and we can often become entrenched in bad habits without even realising.”

Take Arsenal’s long-time manager Arsene Wenger as an example. When the Frenchman first took charge at the North London club he brought with him a new way of managing. Gone were the pork sausages and after training lagers that the players had become accustomed to. Healthy eating, rigorous and intelligent practice and advanced methods of conditioning and recovery were installed.

Wenger also added a touch of continental flair by building an attack minded team around Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg.

Three Premier League crowns, including going unbeaten in the 2003/04 campaign, as well as four FA Cup titles in his first nine seasons in charge saw the Gunners challenge Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United for supremacy in England.

But since Roman Abromovic pumped his personal wealth into Chelsea in 2003 and Khaldoon Al Mubarak did likewise with Manchester City in 2008, Wenger’s men have fallen down the pecking order with many fans and pundits calling for his resignation.

Much of the criticism levelled at Wenger centres on the perception that he runs the football club with an authoritarian mindset. This is understandable. When a leader is so enmeshed within the fabric of an organisation, relinquishing any sort of control can often feel like a complete removal from power.

As the absolute monarch Louis XIV of France is purported to have said, “L’Etat, c’est moi”, or, “I am the State.”

Speaking at the Elite Sport Summit, Ben Ryan, the former Fiji Sevens head coach who guided the island nation to its first ever Olympic medal when he won gold in Rio last year, used the analogy of a bird’s eye view to argue that an astute leader should always be open to utilising external help.

“I think most people in sport work in a bubble and sometimes they get so into what they do that it becomes hard for them to see the big picture,” Ryan said. “It’s so crucial to get that bird’s eye view because when you’re on the ground, working with your players day in and day out, it can become difficult to see what the problem is. Sometimes you’re not even aware there’s a problem.”

Ryan continues, “Some of the most important mentors I have used have come outside of rugby. The interesting thing is that we all have the same common problems. We just have different variables to overcome that are unique to our sport.”

Understanding that leaders from all industries share common problems is crucial to opening up a dialogue that could lead to an external influencer making an impact in your organisation. Problems such as interpersonal power dynamics, the pressure to achieve success, overcoming obstacles, beating the opposition; these are broad problems that are applicable to any leader of a team.

Kennaugh agrees by stating, “Leaders have to be reminded that they are serving someone else. Whether you’re the head coach of a national rugby team or a line manager within a small business, your job is to get the best out of those who are under you.” Bringing the conversation back to sport, he argues that too much emphasis has been placed on self-awareness and educating athletes.

While Kennaugh accepts that these initiatives are “good” he says a coach’s or manager’s job “should focus on on-field performances. It’s their job to help the athletes navigate the complexities of being an athlete and to get to the root cause of what that is. Too many coaches are wrapped up in how good they are and what they’ve achieved. This can often lead to reluctance to seek help.”

Success breeds success but it can also breed stubbornness. Wenger might argue that he does not need to seek external help. He can rightly point to a trophy cabinet that is stocked with glittering silverware.

Even in this ‘barren’ period he has still managed to win three of the last four FA Cups. Try explaining to fans of Scunthorpe, Gillingham, Swindon or any number of smaller clubs that this current stint is not worthy of celebration.

That is not to say that Wenger can’t open himself up to some help from outside of his club or indeed outside of his sport. Here, Kennaugh offers a word of advice.

“I think if you’ve been successful you assume you’ve found the Holy Grail to success,” Kennaugh says. “We spend so much time and effort trying to be successful and trying to find a formula that works so when we do we want to hold onto it. You need to balance having self-belief in your own strategies with accepting that you may need to listen to others from time to time. That’s what separates the best leaders from the pack.”

With increased competition in the toughest football league on the planet, Arsenal’s wait for a 14th league title may stretch a while longer. The club simply can’t compete with the spending power of the Manchester clubs and Chelsea but they still do possess a manager at the helm who knows how to win titles.

Whether or not seeking external help with aid Wenger in his quest to challenge at the top remains to be seen. What is certain is that stubbornness is not a trait you want in a leader, least he or she be compared to a fish unable to see the water they’re swimming in.