Leader or Lightweight? I know how he feels

So the England rugby captain who, this autumn, led his team to within one point of reaching the World Cup final has ‘decided to take a break from international rugby in order to prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being.’ Have you ever had to make this sort of decision? I have and got it wrong.

There are plenty of angles to this story: the shameful behaviour of some ‘rugby fans’ who post online abuse; wider discussions around freedom of speech; and the support that the Rugby Football Union and World Rugby provide to players and officials (another world-class referee today announced he is stepping back) to name but a few.

My question is whether this decision by Owen Farrell is him failing to stand strong in the face of adversity, or is this a strong and confident leader demonstrating good leadership?

Leaders are confronted by all sorts of difficult and uncomfortable situations. They are often the outward facing embodiment of their organisation and subject to discontent felt by external and internal parties to that organisation, as well as dealing with dissatisfaction people might have with that leader’s personal actions and behaviour. Leaders take on these responsibilities (arguably not always knowingly) when they assume their roles. Surely they are there to front up to these difficulties and make the tough decisions? If not the leader, then who?

We also expect our leaders to lead by example, to demonstrate good and appropriate behaviour and to look after themselves so that they can perform at their best for the good of their organisation (the duty of every employee, surely).

Peer pressure, social norms, machismo, ego, lack of confidence….all contribute to people often making the wrong decision in these circumstances. They did with me when I was dealing with anxiety and stress on an operational tour a few years ago. I thought I was doing the right thing by fronting up at work, but I was a bit of a wreck, functioning well below my best, not able to lead my team properly and causing undue concern for my family who knew I was suffering but were too far away to help.

My take on the Farrell story is that he has taken the hard decision and he is demonstrating good leadership. This is the right way to deal with the issues he is facing, and he has demonstrated strength to not succumb to expected behaviour by doing his own thing . He has shown other players that it is okay to step back, that prioritising their own and their families’ wellbeing is the right thing to do and that he will not be broken by online trolling. Furthermore, he is making sure that he will be able to perform at his best as England captain in the future, by recuperating now.

He would have been a lightweight to carry on, but has not done that. Credit to him.

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