Paddy Upton’s New Leadership lecture

I was fortunate enough to attend Paddy Upton’s ‘New Leadership’ lecture at SSISA’s Performance Leadership Summit last week. Since then I have been asked by quite a few people what I thought of it. Well, I found the lecture to be stimulating and highly enjoyable, and I admire Paddy for his engaging manner, and for how he has continually developed himself over the years.


 He shared some of the experiences and learnings which over the years have lead to his current philosophy of allowing the players in a team to lead themselves, with the only other input being his role as facilitator of that process. In so doing, he has managed to not only clearly formulate some ideas that have been brewing in my head for a while (probably since Clive Woodward won the rugby World Cup with England), but also to actually create the circumstances in which to fully implement them in a professional team environment. 

It took me back to a team that I was involved with a few years ago, that were desperately in need of this kind of approach. At the time I tried very hard to implement some aspects of these principles, but unfortunately never managed to convince the key decision-maker that it could work. The habits of treating athletes as not being able to think for themselves was way too entrenched in his mind. 

So yes, I fully buy into what Paddy’s is saying. He seems to already have caused some waves with it, and I hope that he keeps creating even more, and in doing so manages to open many more coaches and (and even more importantly) administrators’ eyes to the benefits of this approach. 

We do need to be careful though of not over-simplifying or over-generalizing. This approach – like any other – will not always achieve the desired result. We also need to recognize the critical role that change plays in all of this. Just change – in and of itself. It is an incredibly powerful force. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the change is, but just by introducing some change to a system or team, one can trigger significant positive consequences.

Over the years we have seen coaches come in and turn teams around single-handedly. But of course it’s never really single-handedly.  What happens is that the change of coach sparks many other changes, notably also in the minds of the players. The influence of these collective changes is incredibly powerful. It is this power that Paddy is deliberately harnassing with his bold approach. 

Looking forward, the more that others take these principles on board, the more it will of course also create circumstances ripe for someone else to come along and call it all nonsense while imposing all the latest scientific discoveries on the players. And so the sporting world turns. But such regular ‘shake-ups’ are necessary for on-going progress and learning.

In 1978 Chelladurai and Haggerty proposed an interesting model of decision styles in coaching. They considered 3 styles of decision-making, namely Autocratic, Delegative and Participative (more in line with Paddy’s approach), and identified a list of key questions which helped identify which of the three approaches would be most useful in a given situation.

In this sense I do think Paddy has been fortunate in that circumstances have largely suited his approach. (For example the fact that he has been working with teams of highly skilled and knowledgeable players, who had in some ways had been going through a period of ‘stuckness’ and were ripe for a radically different approach, and most importantly that he seems to have had the support of the key decision-makers.) Future scientific enquiry though would do well to keep exploring in the direction of Chelladurai and Haggerty – to help us better understand the conditions under which different leadership styles are most effective. My feeling is that the true art of leadership lies not in any one approach, but in accurately assessing current circumstance, and in having the skills to effectively implement whatever is going to be the most useful approach under those conditions. 

The role of science is to help us become more aware of these different conditions, different approaches, and their interactions, while the art as said lies in best applying the current knowledge base. If we one day manage to scientifically understanding all the permutations, then that will be the point at which science and art potentially become one. Fortunately for sport however – on who’s unpredictability we ultimately depend for its challenge and enjoyment – we are unlikely to ever get there.  :)