7 February 2018

Chutes and Ladders: Navigating Hierarchies in Elite Organisations

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

Are hierarchies formed whenever a group of individuals unite for the purpose of a common  goal? Do they represent key structural components for a successful organisation? Or do they hinder progress and lead to cliques and discontent amongst the ranks? These are just some of the questions that we tackle with mental skills coach Tom Dawson-Squibb.

Having just lost their coach after a dissapointing two year period, the Springboks have a massive rebuilding phase ahead of them. Understanding how their leadership structures work could go a long way towards redemption.

Having just lost their coach after a dissapointing two year period, the Springboks have a massive rebuilding phase ahead of them. Understanding how their leadership structures work could go a long way towards redemption.

Last week, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) parted ways with Springbok coach Allister Coetzee. After 22 disappointing months, with a low win percentage - of just 44% that included a first ever defeat to Italy (18-20), a first ever defeat at home to Ireland (20-26), a first ever away defeat to Argentina (24-26) as well as a record margin of defeat to the All Blacks (0-57). The beleaguered coach now finds himself out of a job.

Though a replacement has yet to be formally announced, the task of rebuilding a once mighty legacy looks likely to fall to Rassie Erasmus, a globally respected rugby mind, whose official title currently reads “Director of Rugby”.

There are many explanations for Coetzee’s failings, with some suggesting the former Stormers coach was given a hospital pass by a board that never had his back. Others pointed to an outdated game plan that was baffling at the best of times. 

There are whispers of discontent amongst the players, with several key members of the senior leadership group that were unhappy with Coetzee’s management style.

Whenever a coach leaves his post, there is an opportunity to rebuild and start anew. A new coach will bring a fresh perspective, but there is room for senior players to assert themselves on the team. How they do this has a massive effect on the culture -  on and off the field, as well as the performance on match day.

For Tom Dawson-Squibb, a high performance coach who founded the mental conditioning and skills organisation, Headstart Sport in 2010. He has worked with elite athletes in Super Rugby, Premier Soccer League, as well as elite golfers. 

We all know what hierarchies are, don’t we? A quick Google search defines the term as: “a system in which members of an organisation or society are ranked according to relative status or authority”. Hierarchies exist in businesses, governmental structures, military divisions and elite sports teams.

As Tom points out “Hierarchies need to exist. The majority of success stories have robust leadership objectives behind them. However, hierarchies, for me, carry a stigma. The word is often misconstrued to imply a concrete, inflexible way of doing things that sees information primarily exist in a top-down model. This can cause problems.”

Before we get to those problems, it is important to outline the basic model that most elite sports teams can adopt, when assigning leadership roles amongst the players.

At the top is the captain who is the face and voice of the team. Most teams will have a vice-captain, or as some Super Rugby teams in the southern hemisphere are implementing two vice-captains, who serve as the captain’s deputies and are often the link between the playing group and the captain.

One tier down is widely called the ‘leadership group’ and will often include senior players, with the odd selection of talented youngsters who have been earmarked as potential future captains. 

“I don’t have a problem with any of that, it is important for every player to have someone in the leadership group who they can relate to. What bothers me is when the senior leadership group is filled with players who are there by virtue of their longevity, or in the side or because of their talent. They may possess no leadership credentials and can’t relate to any of the players below them, however they have been with the team a long time. All too often they are close mates with the captain and are therefore thrust into a position they have no business being in.”

It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in; it’s easy to understand how longevity can breed entitlement. An intimate knowledge of the inner workings of an organisation can often convince people that they deserve a senior decision making role.

This entitlement, if rewarded, can lead to individuals adopting an aloof attitude to hard work and team cohesion, and become the drivers in the development of cliques. If this entitlement is not rewarded with a leadership role, the disgruntled individual can foster disharmony within the ranks. Thankfully, there is a way to avoid such destabilising scenarios.

“It may sound obvious but the most important thing is to be honest with people. If a senior player, who has been around a long time and is perhaps one of the most talented individuals on the team, is not deserving of a leadership role you need to be straight with them. People can handle setbacks if you’re honest.

Dawson-Squibb continues: “Explain to them exactly why they have been overlooked for a leadership role and what character traits or skills you are looking for. If they’re important members of the team, as a result of their talent or their longevity in the side, offer them an alternative role. Make sure they feel like they can still contribute.”

That last point is an important one. Seasoned veterans are worth their weight in gold and can offer invaluable tactical and technical advice for developing players. Just because a superstar talent does not possess the unique leadership qualities you are after, this does not mean they should be excluded from leadership positions.

They could assume the role of a mentor to a young player in the same playing position or lead an on-field unit such as the defensive line in football or lineouts in rugby. These are the players that the leadership group consults in trying circumstances - they need to be treated with respect.

Having said that, Dawson-Squibb is adamant that the leadership group should be clearly defined and those included must understand their role.

“What I like to do with leadership groups is create portfolios,” Dawson-Squibb says, referencing his recent stint with the Super Rugby franchise the Melbourne Rebels. “If you fail to do this, you create a leadership group where everyone just acts like prefects or library monitors; people who only care about discipline and tucking in your shirt. If a leader has a clear mandate in his portfolio, say ‘defence’ or ‘team cohesion’, he can narrow his vision and slot into his appropriate place in the hierarchy.”

An added benefit of sticking to a portfolio is the organic creation of deputies. As Dawson-Squibb says, “an important role of a leader is to create more leaders. By specialising in a specific department in the team, less senior members will naturally gravitate to where they feel most comfortable.”

We see this all the time with old hands taking young prospects under their wing. Think Victor Matfield once martialling the Springbok line-out or John Terry nurturing a promising centre backs at Chelsea FC.

The concept of a rigid hierarchy, such as a corporate ladder that might exist in a bank or law firm, can be off-putting for some. Those high up might be incapable of accepting input from those below, while the individuals on the lower runs might lose sight of the team objective.

By understanding that social hierarchies exist naturally, an astute leader can foster an environment that includes every member of the organisation while still maintaining a coherent chain of command.

The task of restoring the Springbok legacy will be no easy objective for Rassie Erasmus and the leadership group. They will need to band together and be clear in their tactical and technical approach (on and off the field).

Understanding the roles of each individual within the leadership group would be a good place to start.