There’s a famous quote about the difference between rugby football and football (or soccer to use the vulgar alternative). It suggests that rugby is a thugs’ game played by gentlemen while its counterpart  is a game for gentlemen “played by thugs”. Over-simplistic & class-riddled it may be, but there’s a grain of truth in there.

Anyone who has watched even one game from the current rugby world cup won’t fail to be touched by the sight of 19 stone, grizzled behemoths crying while singing their national anthem, paw clutched to badge next to heart. Yet should they stumble upon an international soccer game via some pay-per-view source, they will see pampered, prancing ponies clearly irritated by the notion of having to sing about anyone but themselves.

I wasn’t surprised, however, to read a recent HBR article singing the praises of rugby culture while saluting the achievements of a senior executive who transformed his organisation by applying the qualities of the game he once played as a former All Black. I’ve come across similar stories during my consultancy career. What did surprise me was that this author was an American.

At the core of rugby culture are values, principles and behaviours which sadly seem to be in short supply right now. There are the official values, and then there are these:

– be what you say (there’s no hiding place on a rugby pitch so if you’re going to talk a good game, make sure you can back it up)

– respect diversity (rugby is played by people of all shapes and sizes, each with as valuable a part as the next and without whom the team can’t function)

– focus on goals (no point playing unless you’re doing it to win)

– criticise positively and constructively

– be explicit about your values as a group

– work hard, play harder (the rugby culture is as legendary off the pitch as it is on)

– play for your mates, not yourself

Once you’ve experienced these qualities at first hand, it’s hard to accept anything else. Perhaps that’s why we’re so passionate about brands delivering what they promise and leaders being what they say?

For a game played by such intimidating physical specimens (whether male or female), the game is deceptively complex, more akin to chess than WWF. There are surprisingly few significant injuries and incidents of foul play are few and far between. 30 players trample all over the pitch with bodies so often lying on the floor, yet rarely does boot connect with flesh and cheap shots are a rarity.

How much of this sounds like the thuggish game playing in your board room, current meeting culture or interpersonal organisation norms?

Scrum anyone?

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