"I wanted to win": Will Carling's lessons from the rugby pitch
Ahead of their appearance at the FT Weekend Festival, FT editor Lionel Barber in conversation with former England rugby captain Will Carling on why he is a good leader and the lessons he has learned from his time in sport and the army.
Produced by Natalie Whittle and Juliet Riddell. Filmed by James Sandy and Tom Hannen. Edited by Oliver McGuirk.
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How are you?
Good to see you.
Good to see you.
Will, thanks so much for coming in. You and I are going to be onstage shortly at the weekend FT Festival, and we're going to talk about how to lead and the qualities of leadership. You were named captain of England rugby team at age 22.
What do you think you brought at the time as a leader?
I don't know. And bizarrely I went to talk to Geoff Cooke about it only about a year and a half ago because I never asked him. Because I think he was going to say something like, gee, you had all these qualities I could see you and this, that, and the other. And he said, well, basically it was our last roll of the dice, and he was just laughing. And I was like, great.
Was there something specific though he saw in you? Charm?
No, definitely not.
Winning-- I wanted to win. He said it was just there were all these guys sitting in the room who were more experienced than me-- and older wasn't the issue. They were older than me, but they were more experienced than me. And I just thought, if there's one thing I can do is to get them to start telling me, individually and as a group, what do we need to change to start becoming successful, because we weren't successful. We weren't winning.
What I've learned in the sort of years that I've been the editor is that communication is very important, but also you kind of need some pillars. You need one or two people that you can really trust as sort of subleaders. Is that your experience in the rugby team?
You're always going to get-- say we had a group of 21 to 25 of us. Within that, you've got four or five key characters. Geoff Cooke said, well, you need to sit with the strong characters and just gently feed these ideas in, circulate them, see what they think. You have buy-in, and it's just got to be more subtle. You stand up and say we will do this, and they look at you and go, no we won't.
People look at rugby players as these big, strong, tough men who don't need any emotional support. They needed huge emotional support. And some of the stuff that made the biggest impact were maybe personal notes that you would write to them, put them under the door sort of night before games and stuff. And then sort of later on that evening they came up and go, actually mate, I appreciate that nice touch, but never in front of them, especially not the forwards.
Just going back to the rugby field, the game, some of the things I've watched on TV, I mean, just physically brutal. Is it a bit like a war zone? Because you were in the army briefly, but they weren't in combat. How much is it we're in the trenches here together?
Oh yeah, there's a lot. And bizarrely, I think the game that we all looked forward to, or I did, the most was the French game because it was the most violent. You'd go out with these guys standing behind you. You know exactly what's going to happen, but you look after each other. And that sense of going out was-- I loved it. And a psychologist would have a field day, but that's when you are tested.
Just in conclusion, do you think leaders can have friends within the team, within the business?
I think you can have friends, but you have to treat your friends just the same as the guys that you're not as friendly as or girls or whatever. There must be no bias, I don't think. There must be no favouritism.
I think one of the best lessons I've learned-- when I was meant to be in the military, I sort of went with my regiment over the summer and we were on this big exercise, and it was great because I used to spend all this time with these officers asking them what's a good leader and why are you a good leader, and they would tell me. And then I had three weeks of the guys saying, so who are the good leaders and why are they good leaders?
And one guy I remember just saying to me, who was Welsh, he said, (WELSH ACCENT) Will, I tell you what. It's very simple. He said, actually it's just about fairness and honesty. He said it really is. He said just be very honest about what you want and the values that should be for our platoon. He said, and secondly, it's being completely fair with all of us. So there's no favourites. There's no cliques.
And I'm just sitting there. It's very simple, but it was absolutely right. He said, you must treat all of us the same and give everyone as much time, give everyone the opportunity to speak. So I think that is quite hard.
Will Carling, former English captain of the rugby team with the flawless Welsh accent. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
Oh, thank you.