Former England rugby union player and coach, Sir Clive Woodward, is best known, and much celebrated, for his success in guiding the England rugby team to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
Their win has been put down to his innovative leadership style – along with a beautiful last-minute drop goal from ‘man-of-the-match’ Jonny Wilkinson, and a colossal team effort.
Given this positive legacy, it’s hard to imagine that Woodward has had to face up to failure very often, but he points out that success can breed its own set of pressures.
“In sport, once you’ve done well, expectations suddenly escalate – the moment you slip you know about it through feedback and the media,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to handle negativity because you can’t be successful all the time.”
And he adds that success was never a given. Landing the role of the England rugby team’s first professional coach was exciting yet daunting, and involved building his team and proving himself as a leader.
“I thought ‘I’ve been lucky enough to get this job, so I’m going to give it my all’, as I did with my business, previously,” Woodward recalls.
“There’s no substitute for working hard, you’ve got to throw as much energy and passion at it as possible, and hope your plan maps out. I knew I needed to move the team into professionalism. You also have to get close to your boards and keep them in the loop. Fortunately, they were a great support.”
The importance of self-awareness
His time as England coach was not without ups and downs. In his book Winning, Woodward highlights a difficult period when his team members announced they were going on strike – a decision he had not foreseen and did not support at the time. On reflection, he perceives it differently.
“However disappointed I was that they went on strike, in many ways I was proud of them,” he admits. “It took a lot of guts and they clearly trusted each other. Looking back, I’m not pleased with how I handled it emotionally.”
For Woodward, showing leadership – in sport or business – involves a large dose of self-awareness and scrutiny, as well as playing to your strengths and embracing other people’s. “I don’t think I’ve got great ideas,” he admits. “But I’m good at listening, and a huge element of leadership is listening to others and enabling their ideas to happen; making sure you’re helping the whole team come up with new ideas. Leadership doesn’t happen overnight, you build trust and respect within teams which is a lengthy process.”
He cites former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, as an example of a strong leader. “Year on year, Ferguson got better and better and left when he was at the top. In the business world, you’ve got the likes of Virgin’s Richard Branson and Microsoft’s Bill Gates who keep moving their businesses forward.”
Leaving a positive legacy involves knowing when to step away from a project or step down, Woodward believes. This was a hot topic in sport earlier this year, when Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, faced harsh criticism for his team’s humiliating string of defeats, but remained in post.
“It would have been sad to have been fired as England rugby coach, it’s just about choosing the right time to go,” says Woodward. “I would say the key is to stay highly motivated – I’m lucky I’ve never considered my work as a ‘job’; you’ve got to enjoy what you do.”
Having left his job as England coach less than a year after their World Cup victory, Woodward would like to be remembered as someone who wasn’t afraid of trying new things. “I’m always looking for new knowledge and ideas, I like to generally push the boat out,” he says.
Meanwhile, he is hopeful that the England Rugby team will thrive under the current leadership of Eddie Jones (who previously coached the Australian team Woodward beat in 2003) and may shine in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Jones’ appointment has a lesson for business too, he argues. “If you look at his CV he’s had failures – he’s been fired a few times. Sometimes, when recruiting, you look for that ‘perfect’ person – but experience is the most valuable thing. I would actually be averse to employing someone who hasn’t failed at some point because it’s that very failure that gives them the hunger for what they want,” he concludes.