Lancaster gets Leinster introverts to come out of themselves

Coach sees huge benefits of turning polite young men into vocal leaders on the field

As soon as the former England coach settled into Dublin, during the autumn of 2016, he showed Leinster players his own personality profile. They saw an introvert who learned how to be an extrovert in order to become an effective leader.

Now, your turn.

“Yeah, he has [done a personality profile] on me,” said Jimmy O’Brien, a highly skilled Newbridge College outhalf who has risen to the fringes of the Leinster team. “I’d say I was more of an introvert.”

O’Brien represents the majority of this new Leinster generation.

“I remember there was a big circle and I was over here and I had to move over there by doing different actions.”

Stuart Lancaster forces you to come out of your shell?

“Yeah, exactly.”

He makes you a better player?

“Yeah, definitely.”

He helps you to make better decisions on the pitch?

“You have to make decisions and be talking the whole time, ordering lads around the whole time. Yeah, it definitely helps.”

Here follows the value of an introvert as a leader, by Stuart Lancaster (abridged version). This could be the nub of why England failed under Lancaster’s leadership at the 2015 World Cup as much as it is why Leinster are so successful under his guidance these past three seasons.

The best coaches always evolve.

Susan Cain, discussing her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, notes that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes, simply because they let their employees run with ideas, whereas an extrovert's need to put their own stamp on things can completely silence an already quiet soul.

Carl Jung

We are entering the territory of Carl Jung, who founded analytical psychology, but the extrovert needs the introvert and vice versa. Like Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak. Like Johnny Sexton – Lancaster labels his captain an extrovert – needs the younger players to prosper.

The 50-year-old looked around an overwhelmingly home-grown group of well-educated, talented young men and realised the enormous benefit of turning such polite and diligent people into vocal leaders. On this November morning in UCD, he provided a snap shot of a process that reduces the importance of coaching by enabling players to cope in severely pressurised environments.

“There are so many different personality types,” Lancaster  explains. “What I found over here is a lot of the players are quiet, they are detail-orientated. They are very respectful of coaches and what they say and everything else, which is great, great qualities but equally they need to be leaders on the field. So, sometimes, you’ve got to push this person who is traditionally quite reserved and quite quiet to be more vocal in meetings, to be more vocal in training sessions, to be more vocal in games because ultimately they are the ones that drive the performance.

Raise the awareness

“The way in which you go about that, I think, is to firstly raise the awareness of their own personality type. Explaining there is no right or wrong and then get them to understand how to flick that personality during those key moments – games, training sessions, meetings – and more importantly, when they do make that step to voice their opinion that you support it and don’t belittle it. There is nothing worse than a coach saying to an introvert I want you to give an opinion but you immediately knock them down for giving it. In which case they will never give it again.

“From my point of view we are trying to grow the leadership within the organisation and in the team mainly because the top-end players . . . I mean, Johnny is not an introverted person. Sean O’Brien was not an introvert.”

O'Brien, a Leinster outlier from farming stock, was a natural leader of men but the visible transformation of Garry Ringrose is mentioned.

“It’s the next generation,” Lancaster continues. “It’s your James Ryans, your Garrys, your Robbie [Henshaws] and Lukey [McGrath] are people we are trying to grow. You can see the growth of them in team meetings and how they own the team, that’s what the best teams have.”

Takes one to know one.

“I am probably more [of an introvert]. I guess as a coach you have to learn to flip between the two. It’s the same as a player. I actually showed them my personality profile first and I’d be very similar to some of them. You just learn to flip it from speaking in meetings and growing in confidence and that’s what we are trying to do with them. Albeit I am trying to do it for them at a younger age. I learned it at 28, 29. We are doing it with them at 22, 23.”

Sheltered environments

The methodology seems more important in the Leinster environment, considering the community that the majority of players come from; middle-class families and private schools, mostly St Michael’s and Blackrock College, which are ultra-serious rugby environments from as young as 12 years old. It begs the question, while these young boys are being expertly primed to become professional rugby players, and a lot of them living at home until they earn full contracts, can such relatively sheltered environments be a drawback?

“I wouldn’t describe it as a drawback because ultimately the strength of the schools system in Leinster is there for everyone to see. It’s amazing what it creates in terms of the competition, the talent pool, but there’s no doubt that part of independent thinking and player ownership and leadership is by doing things on your own, not having coaches to spoon-feed you all the time.

“I’m not saying they do that in the schools system.

“I’ve done three sessions with all the schools coaches and I’ve talked a lot about the balance between the structured and unstructured game and how, at school level, it’s important to allow them to do that. Because it’s all very well and good that a player is comfortable in his schools system, but as soon as he leaves that and comes to university or comes to Leinster to play in a different system, they have to be independent and be adaptable.

“So I don’t think it’s a drawback but it’s certainly something that could be a weakness if you allowed it to be.”