State of Origin. An Unusual Leadership Lesson.
I've said it before on this forum. I am not a fan of using sporting analogies when teaching leadership. I find most of them trite, failing to recognize the complexity that leaders face and falsely associating leadership with heroic acts.
But like any walk of life, sport can sometimes give us an incite into human behaviour. And as people looking to develop our leadership, we need to be students of human behaviour. The initiation of the State of Origin series in Australian rugby league demonstrates an incredible important aspect of the way that teams bond.
Rugby league is one of the most physically brutal team sports played in the world. Opposing teams set out to batter the opposition into submission. Giants of men take the ball at full sprint, slam into the opposition line and are tackled to the ground by up to four opposition giants. Unlike American football, it is played with no protective equipment. It is a very popular sport in the States of Queensland and New South Wales (NSW) in Australia. There is an interesting history to the contest.
During the 1960s and 70s a large disparity grew between the wealth of the clubs from NSW and those from Queensland. NSW law allowed for gambling via poker machines resulting in large cash flows for the rugby league clubs. This was against the law in Queensland so the clubs there were relatively poor. This, in turn, led to a big difference in the standard of rugby league between the two states. As well as being able to afford better facilities and coaches, the talent scouts from NSW would identify up and coming stars in Queensland and attract them south with big salaries. The situation came to a head every year in the interstate match between the two state teams. NSW would consistently outclass the Queensland team. Any young Queenslander showing exceptional talent in his losing side would invariably turn up next year in the NSW team, having been snared by NSW talent scouts.
By the late 1970’s, interest in the interstate game had dwindled and the situation was holding back the promotion of the sport. In 1980, the idea for a “State of Origin” match was born. Instead of the players being selected on the basis of where their club team was based, they would be selected on the basis of where they first played the game. Queensland could claim back some good players and make a game of it. The idea immediately drew huge criticism.
Selecting teams on this basis would mean that players from the same club team would end up on different sides. These guys played beside each other week after week representing their club. They trained together four or five times a week. They were friends. They socialized together. Their wives and girlfriends knew each other. And now they would be asked to play against each other in the most brutal game around. Surely they would just take it easy on each other, they wouldn’t play hard. Friends don’t bash each other.
It turns out that friends do bash each other if one adopts an identity of “Queenslander”, and the other “New South Welshman.” The game was characterised by exceptional brutality including several all-in brawls. At one point, Queenslander Arthur Beetson, a legendary player in the twilight of his career, took aim at New South Welshman Mick Cronin and hit him with a tremendous shot. Arthur and Mick were teammates at the Parramatta club in Sydney, training and playing together several times a week.
Queensland won the game 20-10 and the promoters loved it – State against State, Mate against Mate became the catch-cry. State of Origin continues to this day, acknowledged as the pinnacle of the sport (more so than international matches). Every year it matches team-mate against team-mate and no quarter is given. Players see no conflict. They will tear into each other on Wednesday State of Origin night, and on Saturday they are fighting shoulder to shoulder with each other in the club game.
The aspect of human behaviour we are witnessing here is called Social Identity. We are social animals and are driven to associate ourselves with others around a purpose. We hold multiple social identities and can switch between them depending on our context. Walking into the stadium on State of Origin night, I have a social identity called Queenslander. But if I meet an ex-work colleague at the bar, I can immediately switch to a social identity of ex-BP employee.
The important thing to understand as a leader is that Social Identity is a very strong driver of behaviour - much stronger than we give credit to. Numerous research projects have identified that social identity is a much stronger driver of people's behaviour than anything you say or do to them as a leader. This turns traditional leadership on its head. I have included the reference to the best book on the subject at the end of the article. It makes a compelling case for leaders as entrepreneurs of social identity.
Arthur Beetson retired back to Queensland the year following the inaugural State of Origin match as a hero. He lived out his life immersed in the adulation of his fellow members of the social identity called “Queensland State of Origin rugby league fans.” It didn’t stop him flying to Sydney for the odd re-union of the Parramatta club where he would share a beer with Mick Cronin.
Haslam, S. Alexander, Stephen D. Reicher, and Michael J. Platow. The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power. Psychology Press, 2010.