sports gazette

A New Leadership Culture At Twickenham?

St. Mary’s Rugby League listen to their coach at a cold night’s training. Photo: Jan Kapcia
Published: 19 Nov 2012

“Wayne’s first question was ‘What can you teach me?’ I’m standing there in front of Wayne Bennett, and it was a very genuine question. It wasn’t just about sitting and listening to Wayne Bennett pontificate on life, he really wanted to exchange ideas.”

This wasn’t how an interview with St. Mary’s University rugby league coach, Jonathan Griffin, started. It started, as one may expect, with a discussion on the rugby league team at the university. But it quickly became a discussion on coaching, on rugby – both league and union – and a discussion about motivation and leadership. This wasn’t name-dropping either. This was a coach acknowledging his own strengths and weaknesses by drawing on different experiences.

Griffin’s experience of Wayne Bennett has clearly influenced and taught him certain things. He spoke of Bennett wanting to know who he was, his own philosophies, as the key to understanding. “It’s about reciprocation. Get something and give something.”

After meeting with Griffin, I’m not sure if the athletes at St. Mary’s know what they are letting themselves in for. “We made it very explicit. We’ve gone through the process of establishing a vision, establishing some goals, on and off the field. Behaviours and values. Have we hit them all? We’ve actually hit the off field ones better than the on field ones. I’ve got some thoughts on that. But on the whole, we’re very pleased with the lads.”

Those thoughts ranged between players at the University having other commitments – “we’ve made it absolutely 100% clear, study comes first,” – to training harder and more frequently, to being realistic in the ambitions of ‘Simms’ rugby league.

I asked if Jonathan Griffin felt like he had been successful at St. Mary’s. Griffin replied: “You’re probably better off asking the students.” But he spoke of trying to work hard to give responsibility to the players. And the hope that with responsibility becomes accountability and this offers the chance for people to “step up” as Griffin refers to it.

The coach spoke of the incredibly good job the players are doing. He said: “Given the utter lack of resources and support that they get, they are doing a phenomenal job.” He continued: “The aim is to get more people doing a little bit more, rather than having two people doing 100% of the work, try and get 20 people doing 5% of the work, and all of a sudden you’re getting a lot more work done.”

The aim is to get more people doing a little bit more, rather than having two people doing 100% of the work, try and get 20 people doing 5% of the work, and all of a sudden you’re getting a lot more work done.

Was this what Griffin means by accountability? “Exactly, if someone doesn’t do a bit of work, we fall down in that area. We’re working on trying to develop our culture, they’ve really stepped up to that, its gentle steps, we don’t want to throw everything at them. We need to find success.”

He continued: “These are good guys, doing their best for a game that they really enjoy and love, with guys that they really enjoy and love, with no resources. We want to make sure this club strengthens as it goes into the season, so it’s stronger next season and so on.”

I asked was he preparing the players for something later in life? “I suppose, to a certain degree. The American model is developing the individual. I suppose inherently doing the work we’re doing, that’s what we are doing. Lecturing, I came across how people see themselves; they undervalue themselves, in a resume (his time in America has influenced his coaching and his language). One word could be the difference. What they do could identify them against the plethora of people that apply for the same jobs. If we can make this club unique in its strength on field and off field strength, and ensures structures are right – for us to be successful we need everyone to be responsible and accountable so that’s a huge personal achievement, take that experience, sell that experience later in life.”

So, how do the players respond? “The more demands I put on, them, the more they realise that this is actually quite serious.” You get the impression it goes further than on the field. “It can’t just be about on the field. Because if you win a game, that’s it. There’s a great saying by the All Blacks coaches ‘good people make great All Blacks’. You can have all the skill sets as individuals, but if we don’t have individuals working well, it’s not going to mean a lot.

“Wayne Smith (the former player and now rugby union coach) has done work about personal development and team development. These guys are all the same in terms of skill, athleticism. But it’s the guys who understand each other, who are empathetic, who have emotional intelligence, there’s a personal growth element.”

So who else has the Simms coach learnt from and been influenced by? Griffin also cited Shaun Edwards as having to be the biggest influence, it being interesting to see how league affected union, and to give a better understanding of this process.

But also mentioned were Bill Walsh (the great American Football coach of the San Francisco 49-ers who Griffin worked under at Stanford University), Robbie Deans, rugby union coach of Australia, the philosophies and techniques of college basketball coach John Wooden and British coaches such as Dave Brailsford and now current England union coach Stuart Lancaster. In terms good coaching practice, Griffin believes that Lancaster “reflects the great coaches of the last 30 or 40 years.”

“Their big thing is about team culture and leadership.” Does Griffin believe in a cross-pollination of coaching ideas? “Yeah you read something, you talk to someone and suddenly you’re down an avenue you never really thought you’d go down, spawns another couple of questions. And a lot is about asking questions, being reflective, being introspective, and asking: ‘What do I do well as a coach? Well that’s great but what do I not do well as a coach, can I address that? If I can what do I need to do?’”

Does he think that they are all the same, the principles of coaching, teaching and learning? “Ubiquitous. Without question, underlying principles are the same. The interesting question is: ‘What is success? What are your metrics for success?’ The broader the metrics, the easier it is to be successful, that can be used as a soft answer but also a very hard answer. You can have very clear KPI’s (key performance indicators), to go after on the field, off the field, that will help you drive towards your success model and I think that’s critically important to spread that load.

“We’re trying to be more performance orientated. People want to win, they don’t want to finish second, but it’s trying to understand different ways to view that coin, there’s definitely two sides or more.”

So what in his opinion makes a good leader? Griffin believes that maybe we don’t emphasise leadership enough in Britain, not necessarily just in a sporting context but in wider elements of life. He cited places such as high schools and many workplaces as not emphasising the concept of leadership enough. I asked are we behind? “Oh we’re not behind, we’re not even on the same planet.”

He continued: “I think there’s an enormous lack of leadership development. In fact just even the word leadership isn’t used nearly enough as it should be. It’s not something people aspire to, which I find interesting.

“Leadership is an everyday thing, an every moment thing. Its reflective of who you are, that’s why emotional intelligence is so important. Growth mindset. Your ability to be a good team-mate.

“You’ve got to respect every individual for who they are, then you’d have a philosophy and live up to that philosophy, live that philosophy. And it could just be that they’re very honest. That adds strength of character, which is that emotional intelligence, the ability to tell it as it is.

“Everybody makes mistakes but I want to make sure that when we make them that we are making them in a growth mindset, in a very positive environment and you can learn from that. Rather than being terrified of making mistakes, and then you make more mistakes.”

But what keeps Griffin motivated? “(after some thoughtful silence) The thing that keeps me going is the belief that we’re doing the right thing. The opportunity to work with guys who want to work hard is fantastic. And I have the opportunity to do that, and I’m learning.

“It’s about encouraging self-reflection, encouraging emotional intelligence development, developing a growth mindset, getting away from a fixed mindset. That is the most difficult thing to do as a coach and most don’t do that. I am nowhere near as good as I want to be, as a coach I’m at the first step. I’m aware I need to do it, I’m working very hard and we’re now starting to address that within the rugby league team.

“It’s very hard, you’re not with them all the time and equally you can offer the opportunity for someone to improve, they have to take that. Those that do… will move exponentially forward as a rugby person and as an individual.

Griffin’s passion for the game and for the discipline of coaching and learning is obvious. But his attention to detail in the specifics of improving skills and making better players has a wider purpose. “For me its important that we’re developing good people.” The players may learn this, just like Wayne Bennett did.

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