Coaching & Development, Human Performance, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Jun 10, 2021
The second day delved into the evolution of athlete leadership, strategic thinking in high performance and the importance of cultivating resilience.

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The second day of Virtual Leaders Meet: Evolution of Leadership saw no let-up in the high performance insights from the world of sport and beyond.

By John Portch

Once again, Leaders Performance Institute members from far and wide logged in, this time to listen to best practice insights from the Adelaide Crows, Connacht Rugby, New Zealand Rugby Union, and Google.

With in-person events still off the table in the short term, the Leaders Performance Institute worked with our Event Partners Science in Sport and Aspetar, as well as Main Partners Keiser, to create a virtual event that delivered the same levels of shared knowledge and insight to which you grew accustomed in 2020.

“Today we have three more fantastic sessions – pieced together with you firmly in mind,” said host Michael Caulfield live from the Leaders studio in London. “We’ll aim to connect ideas, share stories, hear fresh perspectives and help each other to see beyond our usual horizons as we target every aspect of high performance.”

Whether you were able to attend or not, we hope these takeaways will help you to begin to achieve that aim; and we sincerely hope to see you all in the near future.

Read the key insights from Day 1 here.

Session 1: Captain Class – The Evolution of Player Leadership

Speakers: Rory Sloane, Captain, Adelaide Crows, and Jarrad Butler, Captain, Connacht Rugby

Host: Dan Jackson, Head of Leadership Development & Culture, Adelaide Crows

Codes combined for the first session of the day, as we were joined by Rory Sloane of the AFL’s Adelaide Football Club and Jarrad Butler of the Pro14’s Connacht Rugby to discuss the growing emphasis on player ownership in shaping team culture and driving standards.

Sloane has served as captain of the Crows since 2019 [including a spell as co-captain with teammate Taylor Walker] and it was a fitting recognition of more than a decade of sterling service at Adelaide. He made the AFL’s 2016 All-Australian all-star team and is a two-time winner of the Malcolm Blight Medal, which is awarded post-season to Adelaide’s ‘best and fairest’ player.

Butler was appointed captain of Connacht ahead of the 2018-19 Pro14 season after an impressive maiden campaign at the Sportsgrounds in Galway on Ireland’s west coast. The New Zealand-born flanker has enjoyed a storied career and has also represented the Queensland Reds and the Canberra-based Brumbies in Australia.

  • A leader or a captain needs to be genuine. Sloane and Butler both suggest diving into your past. “Reflect on the previous leaders you’ve had or people you admire so that you can gain a better understanding of why you are who you are,” said Slone. Butler has served under a series of exceptional – but highly individual – captains. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” he said. “I’ve had some great leaders and the differences they had were stark and interesting.”
  • Show that there is a strong foundation of care and love – then you can be as candid as you need. “It’s hard,” admitted Butler. “You want guys to like you and it is hard for most guys to go out of your comfort zone, although you need to have hard conversations on and off the field.” Sloane concurred and offered a few tips in addition to social bonding activities. “I don’t like confrontation,” he said, adding, “I found that it is useful to sit next to someone when you’re having those conversations rather than across from them, as I think I came across as aggressive. It helped me to start those conversations.”
  • Leadership groups may help you to practise what you preach. At Connacht, Butler heads a leadership group that is eight players strong. “We practised speaking and tried to understand what we’re trying to get out of the group because it’s easy to say we want to be more accountable, but actually sitting down and talking about it was important,” he said. It feeds into the debrief / review process and ensures a fair exchange of information and enables players to deliver key coaching messages in a resonant fashion.


Session 2: Tāria Te Wā and Kaitiakitanga – Planning, Strategising and Rethinking High Performance Frameworks

Speaker: Mike Anthony, Head of High Performance, New Zealand Rugby Union

Host: Angus Mugford, Vice President of High Performance, Toronto Blue Jays

‘Tāria te wā’ and ‘kaitiakitanga’ translate as ‘long-term thinking’ and ‘guardianship’. Together they represent one of the five main Maori values of leadership.

Here, they form the basis for the late-morning session in which Mike Anthony, the Head of High Performance at New Zealand Rugby, reflected on how the pandemic has inspired the organisation to be more agile despite being an environment that traditionally thrives on routines and planning.

  • Connection and communication. The staff of New Zealand Rugby Union have been proactive around their learning and collaboration despite the obstacles posed by the pandemic. They would communicate with peers offshore as well as within the organisation. Collaborations include their wellbeing group or ‘med-fit’ group, which includes disciplines such as S&C, medical and sports psychologists. Consequently, the processes around case management have become far more efficient and prevented silos forming. “We talk about building a single rugby team. How do we have a single rugby team across New Zealand that’s focused on getting the best out of the players in their domestic competition and then going on to ultimately be a Black Fern or an All Black?”
  • True performance cultures hold each other to account. Players are necessarily empowered and self-driven in non-centralised programmes such as the All Blacks and Black Ferns. World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw talks of “doing the unseen things” at in their training, recovery and preparation. Athletes are also encouraged to have a voice, demonstrate self-awareness around their games, to lead team reviews, and to own and drive the culture. The role of individuals such as Anthony should be facilitative, a sounding board for the athlete. “You get a deeper understanding from the athlete if you involve them in the feedback process and make it collaborative.”
  • Balancing tradition and innovation. It is not always about doing things outside the box but taking care of what Anthony calls the “big rocks”. “You’ve got to be as robust with your reviews when you’re winning as when you’re not,” he said. “When you are successful you want to capture the learnings and ask why we were successful. You hope those big rocks make up 80 or 90 percent of your programme and you retain those and bring those through.”


Session 3: A Platform for Success: Cultivating Resilience at Google

Speaker: Lauren Whitt, Head of Global Resilience, Google

We wrapped up proceedings with a little help from Google’s Head of Global Resilience, Lauren Whitt. Google’s culture has long been noted for its quirkiness and the strength of its teams, but of equal importance is the resilience and mental performance of its staff, who are affectionately known as ‘Googlers’. Not only does Google care for its staff, Whitt firmly believes that resilience is a performance skill in a robust work environment.

Firstly, Whitt explained that Google’s common language is critical to their success and so the organisation has come together on a definition of resilience that resonates with Googlers: ‘The ability to respond to and recover from stress’.

During the pandemic, she reached out to sports psychologists, mental performance coaches and clinical psychologists working with elite athletes to help build a team to create and deliver Google’s ‘Meet the Moment’ programme. The intention is to help Googlers meet their moments of resilience and mental performance. Whitt ran through four scenarios where resilience can be cultivated:

1. How do I balance competing priorities?

“We have to remember that resilience is dynamic, it’s not stagnant; it builds; it ebbs and flows,” said Whitt. “Our experience with resilience and feeling confidence and demonstrating habits and routines means we have the ability to zoom in and zoom out all day every day.

“Where do you as a performance coach need to be zooming in? Where do you need to be zooming out? If you’re a coach, where are the pieces of your team where you need to be zooming out and you need to be in the details more? And where are the places where you can step back, step out, and let the team solve it?”

2. How do I navigate crisis moments?

Whitt spoke of a rock climber Mark Owens who was instructed to focus on his three-foot world [the space immediately around him] when he encountered a moment of crisis on a rock face. She said: “Oftentimes, when crisis comes and panic overcomes us, we start looking out and about that everything that’s happening. But how can we stay in our three-foot world? What are the tools in our three-foot world? Sometimes if you’re a leader in your world the ‘no update’ update will calm your people down; if you don’t know the answer, just say.”

3. How do I know when to detach and take a break?

“Resilience prioritises rest and recovery, not endurance and grit,” said Whitt. “You do it for your athletes but we often forget as leaders, as people working with high performers, that we also need you at your best. We also need you to be able to make decisions on the fly and to be sharp and to be crisp.”

4. How do I know what’s important right now?

Whitt said: “Resilience rests on the shoulders of relationships.” To help create those moments, Google have introduced the ‘TEA check-in’, which provides a framework for leaders unskilled in mental health to check-in with their people in a simple and effective manner. They may ask: “How’s your TEA today?” There are a series of statements in three buckets that will be familiar to Googlers:

Thoughts – ‘Today my mind is…’ ‘To refocus I need to…’

Energy – ‘Today my energy is… ‘To change or maintain, I need to…’

Attention – ‘To be my best today, I will focus on doing or being…’

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