The moment is still too soon for Ulster Head Coach Dan McFarland but his non-hierarchical approach to leadership and the team’s adaptability stands them in good stead.

By John Portch and Dave Slemen – This article first appeared on the Leaders in Sport website on Sep 10, 2020

“If you’re not bothered about slaughtering a cow – and you think that cow needs slaughtering – then it probably never reaches the status of being sacred, does it?”

So asks Dan McFarland, the Head Coach of Ulster Rugby, who has taken time out of his day to speak to Dave Slemen, Founding Partner at Elite Performance Partners [EPP], a search, selection and advisory firm working across elite sport and specialising in performance, and the Leaders Performance Institute.

A bespectacled McFarland takes the Zoom call in his office, as indicated by the white board visible on one side. He is jovial despite Ulster’s defeat to Connacht the previous weekend and answers our questions enthusiastically. So focused is he that he does not break his flow when halfway through the conversation a colleague pokes a head around the head coach’s door just as we pose another query.

“I think it’s too early to say if we’ll be shooting sacred cows,” he says at the outset. It causes his inquisitors’ hearts to miss a beat, as the proverbial shooting of ‘sacred cows’ – obsolete practices or processes that once seemed sacrosanct – at Ulster was the primary reason for arranging our interview.

The topic is ripe for discussion across high performance sport, as EPP discovered during their conversations with leaders such as McFarland during the lockdown period. Conversations which began around furlough, cost-cutting and new regulations soon moved on to a realisation that in moments of deep uncertainty everything is on the table, and nothing is sacred.

At one of EPP’s confidential Leadership Forums, which bring together performance leaders from across sports to share and debate issues and ideas, the group went one further agreeing that not only could the sacred cows be shot, but that it was an imperative for all of their sports that they should be. The group argued that the worst thing that could happen was for teams to emerge from the lessons and insight of the pandemic unchanged, still clinging on to the traditions no longer relevant to their game.

Ulster may not be there just yet but McFarland, a former playing colleague and friend of Slemen’s, and a long-time associate of the Leaders Performance Institute, works through his response to the sacred cows question with customary thoughtfulness and allays our fears. Perhaps his answer provides more food for thought for the wider performance community than a trail of slain cattle.

“I don’t think anything immediately stands out as something we didn’t need to do before,” he continues. “What I do think – and something that’s struck me – is the importance of an environment where you need to be adaptable, where there are unusual occurrences and some teams are not necessarily prepared for that the level of autonomy within their organisation.”

One can see the cogs turning in McFarland’s mind. It is in keeping with his deliberate approach to leading and coaching and, in typical fashion, he is candid when walking one through that process.

“I’ve looked at coaches like this doing interviews in the past,” he says. “I’ve looked at them and going ‘it’s all about getting this out there’ or ‘talking about that’ and stroking your own ego.

“I actually learn an incredible amount from doing this and the reason I learn is that you have to articulate what you believe in. Just the process of answering questions around that is formulating philosophies; helping to mould and sculpt philosophies.

“In our job as leaders we have to sell ideas. If you have an idea you’ve got to be able to sell it; you’ve got to be able to have the right language, use the right language; put it in positions in front of people that people are interested in.

“The fact that I am talking to you about it, it’s difficult on Zoom. If I’m talking about an idea that I have or believe in, I can pretty much tell if I’m selling it or not with you. Are you falling off your chair asleep or are you interested and asking secondary questions? It gives me massive feedback for going and speaking to these guys out here.”

Heading into the unknown

The Guinness Pro14, which contains the provincial teams from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and South Africa, was one of the first competitions to suspend play on 12 March. Ulster, however, played their last match, at home to the Cheetahs of Bloemfontein, on 22 February. Their scheduled trip to the Treviso-based Benetton the following weekend was postponed as the first wave of Covid-19 ravaged northern Italy.

A full six months had passed before Ulster next took to the field [a defeat to Connacht on 23 August] but the team swiftly returned to form. First, Edinburgh were defeated away in the Pro14 semi-finals and now McFarland’s side will take on Leinster in this Saturday’s final at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium [12 September]. There will be no let-up either, as the team will travel to play Toulouse in the European Champions Cup quarter-finals on 20 September and then there is a mere two-week hiatus before next season’s Pro14 group phase begins on 3 October. It is a programme unheard of in rugby.

For all that, McFarland saw it coming down the tracks. “It’s been a long time and there’s been so much evolution through it and a big chunk of it was so unusual that we’ve almost got used to things being unusual,” he observes. “I don’t mean that in the sense that we’ve gotten used to unusual things, what I mean is we’ve gotten used to the fact that there are going to be unusual things. That breeds an adaptability in us and the fact that we are going to be heading into the unknown. Even going into the Connacht match: how do you prepare for games after six months out? Nobody’s ever done it before.”

Adaptability and vulnerability are two of the traits EPP look for in leaders across the board, irrespective of sport or role, and it is clear that those who have embraced the ambiguity of recent months, maintaining long-term clarity while pursuing necessarily short-term goals, have responded better than their peers. “It’s about asking the right questions, and not needing to know all the answers,” explains Slemen, adding, “great leaders create followership around a culture and values that mean all are aligned in service of a common goal rather than committed to a certain way of doing things.”

This was the notion that led EPP to suggest the interview with McFarland, after hearing him speak early in the lockdown period about how Ulster had taken the time to clarify their values in light of the new situation, so all understood that they remained relevant and could use them as a basis to pull together despite being physically apart.

McFarland is certain that a hierarchical leadership style would simply not have worked. Is that because it is not his personal style to be authoritarian or is it because that was not what the team needed?

“It’s a little bit of both,” he replies. “I aspire to a distributed leadership style. I am at the mercy of confirmation bias here, but I don’t see hierarchical leadership as being sustainable. I don’t see it as being effective, actually; but I don’t see it as being sustainable because one of the biggest drivers we have here, and I would have in my personal philosophy, is growth and also being able to enjoy your job.

“I think personal growth and autonomy go hand in hand with enjoying your job. I’ve always aspired to getting people to take on tasks that they can take responsibility for.” His approach has reaped dividends since his arrival in 2018 after what had been a turbulent campaign for the province.

The ability of McFarland’s support staff to work within their specific domains was essential as the managerial meetings piled up in March. “At the start of the lockdown, there was so much information coming in, particularly in our environment where in the nature of where we’re set in Northern Ireland, and crossing over a number of jurisdictions and a number of governing bodies,” he recalls. “The amount of guidelines that we have, that the complexity of working out how we’re going to proceed, it required me to channel a lot of the oversight that I would possibly have spread out in other areas into a specific area.”

Not only has this changed someone like McFarland’s role, but it’s forced initiative on other team members, allowing those who are ready to step up and do things differently. Changes in environment, with less people able to be physically present at training grounds and matches has also had an interesting impact – during the ‘good years’ when many sports were well financed, EPP found a growth of specialists for every role, and a certain presenteeism that eroded the power of the individual and created an element of groupthink as people spent the vast majority of their time together.

Being part of a team while still having a strong sense of self is an important skill for clubs to cultivate, as is breaking down the remaining silos and developing leadership potential in practitioners from an early stage.

EPP predict one big change we’ll see is a return to the specialist-generalist and T-shaped practitioners capable of playing more than one role – for example physiotherapists who are also passionate S&C coaches – taking us back to slimmer structures more akin to days past and reducing the need for specialists for specialists’ sake.

Back at Ulster, McFarland was attending more meetings than ever during the lockdown. “I was on senior management team meetings every week at the start and previously I would have rarely gone to senior management team meetings because I could be updated by Bryn Cunningham, our Operations Director,” he recalls. “There and then I needed to be present; so straight away it’s something totally different.”

To underline his earlier point about distributed leadership, McFarland proceeds to name check a fair number of his staff. “What ends up happening is that people like Tom Clough, our Head of Athletic Performance, people like Chris McNichol, the Lead Physiotherapist, Mike Webb, our  Medical Director, Stephanie Gleadhill, our Lead Nutritionist – these people were in areas where really they didn’t even have to be asked; ‘this needs to be done and we need to have a plan here. What is happening around this?’

“It varied across the stages of lockdown but if they didn’t pick up the ball and run with it, it was going to be a mess. It wasn’t a case of me wanting to stand over them; I didn’t – I just couldn’t.

“It’s only in those circumstances where you can realise and see that competent people, they excel in circumstances like that. I suppose at the end of it I was really pleased that it felt like we recruited well and we do have good people here.”

When will McFarland know the time is right to shoot a sacred cow? “It’s an interesting one because the game is the feedback,” is his reply. “We’ve had a long time away from the game and we’re only coming back to the game now and seeing the feedback. From our point of view, the start hasn’t been great. We’ve not started off where we left off so there’ll have to be some serious review around that.

“Now, my personal opinion is that I have a good idea why we are where we we’re at. We will review that but we won’t do that until we get into the start of next season.”

It is an opportunity for his support staff and, if there is a practice or process to be discarded, there will be an open discussion. “I use the phrase that you’re trying to create space for them to shape it,” he says. “If you fill that space they’ll never shape it. To be fair, some people don’t want to be involved in shaping; they like to be told, they’re happy to follow, but if that space isn’t there be to be filled because I’m filling it constantly or somebody’s filling it constantly, people won’t be able to do that.”

Since speaking to McFarland, Ulster have returned to form just when it mattered most. Attention now turns to Saturday’s clash with Leinster before the return of the European Champions Cup. Perhaps the cattle will live to see another day after all.