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Leaders can borrow from sport and use a default play plan

Within any context, leaders are appointed to achieve clear and specific collective objectives. In some instances, these leaders must manage their teams under highly pressurised circumstances on a continuous or transient basis.

With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, leaders in various contexts have been challenged to keep performing during a struggling economy and uphold staff morale. In this regard, those in charge can be successful or fail, based on their ability to be resilient; obtain the required resources; create a clear, compelling vision and drive values that will guide the team towards that vision; and assign responsibilities to various key role players to help drive the team to consistently live up to the standards required to attain their objectives.

Leaders in professional sport (chief executives, coaches and captains) often have to manage their teams in pressurised environments, where the team not only has to perform to gain and retain endorsements but also maintain the loyalty of fans. They also continuously need to adapt to the requirements of the tournament and the team they are playing against.

Joey Mongalo: As a coach I have led age-group teams to national titles; I’ve also been led by coaches who have succeeded in achieving their objectives of winning matches and titles, including the 2020/21 Currie Cup. Based on these experiences, and as part of my master’s in industrial psychology, I have developed a framework called “default play”. These are core principles that are synonymous with effective leaders who reach their objectives far more often than not. I posit that the consistent application of these effective principles will create leaders who build performing teams who honour and value each other along the process.

Default play

Default plays are called upon when sports teams are under significant pressure; required to regain focus, dominance and/or momentum; or to settle proceedings to reset their course. Using the play reminds the team of who they are and what they stand for — the principles serve as a guide for leaders and teams to “find their way home”. In terms of business, especially during Covid-19, workplaces experienced indefinite chaotic times. If the core of the business (values, team spirit, collaboration and synergy) was discernible before the pandemic, then the business will be able to weather the storm and redefine structures to reach the organisation’s objectives. Without that culture in the organisation, the business will struggle.

In a struggling economy, competition for resources and market share are significant. That is why performance pressure and adversity tend to derail and scatter staff. Conversely a clear, simple default play plan will foster a like-minded view of the situation, call everyone back to the main purpose, and act as a compass that points the leader and the team back to a place of calm, composure and calculated action. Default play is the direction to take when you are unsure of what to do in pressurised situations — in sport or within this ongoing pandemic.

The L.E.A.D model

We previously published an article that looked at the South African workplace culture and the leadership themes that aid the processes of building an inclusive culture. In that write-up, we spoke of the L.E.A.D model, and proposed four principles to assist leaders to function effectively within a culturally diverse team or organisation.

The default play requires the following principles: care, competence, create, consistency and context.  “Context” refers to a leader and team’s capacity to function effectively within a multicultural, multilingual, multi-religious context such as South Africa. We need to interact, react and comprehend the differing realities and points of view held by people based on their respective norms and values. In addition, the pandemic has brought into stark relief the social reality pertaining to socioeconomics. Accepting, embracing and reacting inclusively to those realities as opposed to tolerating them are also necessary.

The other core themes of default play

Care: Newly appointed sport coaches usually start their tenure trying to establish some form of connection with colleagues. This connection acts as fertile soil within which relationships can deepen as team members spend more time together, toil together and gradually trust one another. The deeper the connection, the more authentic the discussion and interactions can be around tough conversations; it is also easier to maintain high standards and to be accountable to producing what the team requires to achieve the desired outcomes.

With the uncertainty around the pandemic, care is the most important attribute to keeping your team engaged and motivated. It speaks to the mutual respect that is gained over time as team members win each other over by doing what they said they would do, by the time they committed to do so, and according to the agreed-upon standard. Such gestures go a long way to cultivating a caring culture, and leaders should model these behaviours and attitudes.

Competence: Author and businessman Stephen R Covey has been quoted as saying, “Trust is a function of two things: character and competence. Character includes your integrity, motive and intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, skills and track record. Both are vital.” The latter portion of this statement is of particular significance. In sport and in business, the position of a team captain or line manager, for instance, should rarely be questioned. There might be times when they lose form or confidence, but in general this individual is considered to be one of the key performers, because it is easier to follow a leader who displays competence than one with questionable skills, capabilities and a contentious track record.

A key part of leadership competence is the ability to be aware of one’s strengths and areas of development. This affords the leader the opportunity to appoint skilled individuals to supplement the areas in which they are less capable while the leader continues to seek improvement within those aspects.

Create: Once a connection has been fostered and team members feel a sense of belonging, the leader has to begin creating something. A leader is responsible for creating a thriving workplace environment and a compelling vision that will stimulate, challenge and inspire his/her team. Traction within a team is gathered when the leader clearly states a vision, and the group agrees on the values that they will work according to in order to attain that vision, while ensuring that each individual is challenged, engaged and supported to meet their respective objectives.

In the 2020/21 Vodacom Bulls team, which won the Currie Cup, coach Jake White stated from day one that the short-term vision was for the group to win the union’s 24th title. The number 24 became the vision; it was seen everywhere, spoken of often and incorporated into every aspect of the environment. Thereafter a set of values were agreed upon between the management and players that would guide all the actions throughout the campaign. In so doing, a standard was set that everyone became a custodian of.

Consistency: Functional consistency speaks to regularly producing work that is of the agreed upon standard. The leader is called to model this standard, and own up when he or she has fallen short. It is essential that leaders aspire to this level of vulnerability; the team will mirror the leader in this regard. His or her demeanour and approach in the face of success and failure is vital – the highs should not be “super elated” and the lows deemed as hitting rock bottom; the team is looking for a steady, dependable, consistent leader.

In implementing default play, it is essential for the leader to first “audit” each of the principles within his/her environment: how are we doing on care; is our environment one in which people feel both challenged and safe to express themselves? These are some key questions that can be asked. This audit should help the leader to correctly assign attention to the principles that require urgent attention and to manage those that are being effectively applied.

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Alewyn Nel
Prof Alewyn Nel is HOD: Human Resources Management at the University of Pretoria (UP)
Joey Mongalo
Joey Mongalo is Vodacom Bulls defence coach and industrial psychology master’s degree candidate at UP

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