Holbeck: Leaders can follow Stephen’s motivational style

Super Rugby
by James Holbeck

After a comprehensive loss to the Crusaders it seems a perfect time to analyse how ACT Brumbies coach, Stephen Larkham, typically responds to challenges.

Steve was once a shy computer and chess enthusiast but whom Owen Finegan in an article last week wrote he believed was now able to empower his players through creating the right environment.

I propose that the foundations of healthy sporting environments and the recovery from such a loss, lies at the foot of a Larkham quip almost 20 years ago. It’s reflective of the sword of greatness that he and other leaders need to carry.

A lot of great players do not make great coaches because skilled performers do a lot of things with minimal conscious involvement and therefore find it difficult to put into words how to perform a skill.

Steve has had to learn this new art of coaching and I believe what underlies his motivational style has enabled him to make the transition and will help the Brumbies successfully move on to their next assignment.

When Steve asked me to play tennis on a day-off in Canberra many years ago, I was not expecting him to brutally reply to my refusal with, ‘You never do anything you cannot win’. It stung me at the time because on reflection I realized it was partly true.

A dangerous mindset some people possess is in always needing to win but in only ever extending oneself to do things they know they can win. It can be driven by a need to protect one’s confidence and can be symbolized as carrying a shield through life in order to protect a sense of how one sees oneself or how they want others to see them.

Stephen Larkham hidden passion. Photo: Getty ImagesEven a loss in a casual game of tennis can be a blow to this person’s ego and so players carrying the shield on the field are often playing for their pride. You can identify them in games because they do the hard conservative things well but they are also less likely to extend themselves to their limits. They instead focus all of their attention on not making mistakes or letting others down.

In many ways this can be seen as honourable. Each game or contest is however a challenge to the player’s image. It consequently restricts a player from striving for and reaching their potential. It also has links to lower levels of well-being and mental health.

Larkham, however, is motivated by the challenge in itself. Success and failure do not define him. He carries the metaphoric sword as the leader of the Brumbies and this, in my view, has helped his transition into creating an effective environment for his players.

The sword he carries is not something to wave around as some form of triumphant phallic symbol after each victory but what he preciously holds is a perspective of growth. He embraces challenges as a way to test himself.

This has allowed him over the years to develop from the reserved youngster to one of the very best players in the modern era. More recently it has thrust him into being an effective and astute coach. He inspires and invites his players to put away the shield when they can and instead learn to carry the sword.

Stephen Larkham and Daryl Gibson following Brumbies win in 2016. Photo: Getty ImagesIn BrainWise Leadership, a book by Henson and Rossouw, it suggests that a leader needs to provide a safe environment in which mistakes are not seen as something to punish but a potential learning experience. A respectful atmosphere where workers voices are heard and appreciated. A key then to making this work is that players must feel valued both in their contribution to the team, and at a deeper level, as unique individuals. This relationship then allows the tough solution-focused conversations.

The only way for a player or team to continuously improve is to feel safe in pushing the boundaries of what they are capable of. This necessitates mistakes and rather than moralise those mistakes or the person’s effort, they are used as a platform to initiate improvement.

As a computer engineering graduate and chess lover, Steve is drawn to puzzles, patterns and problem solving. This is part of his success in overcoming setbacks such as a big loss or moving into unfamiliar environments like coaching. They are an opportunity to try new things and reflect on where things can be improved. A puzzle to be solved.

That is the impetus of an optimistic leader. He does not see failure as an ultimate destructive force. Instead it is a time to re-focus on what he and his players both individually and collectively can work on to rectify the errors of performance.

It satisfies an essential basic need of motivation in his players by providing them with welcomed input and control over their outcomes. This empowers them to continuously engage in the process of growing to be more effective.

Leaders can follow Stephen’s motivational style by asking questions of themselves.

Am I creating an environment where my followers constantly have to hold up a shield to protect their sense of competence from my feedback?

Do I provide a safe environment where my people are empowered to be part of the solution, sword in hand, collectively conquering the challenges before them?

Larkham’s career is underlined by the improbable but will the sword be enough to turn around the Brumbies performance in one week?

James Holbeck is a former Brumbies and Wallabies centre with an Honours in Psychology. James has since earned a reputation as an insightful mentor & coach at Hope Beckons


The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.