Rugby Values & Corporate Values

I grew up in the US in the 60s and the dominant sport in my hometown, like many other parts of the country, was football. So when I moved to the UK it was difficult to stay awake late at night to watch televised American football. So I started gaining an interest in Rugby. It took a while to learn the rules, as they are quite different from American football, but the fast pace and overall size of the players soon captivated me.

There are lots of colloquial sayings about Rugby. A couple of my favourites are:

How we win the game shows something about our character;

how we lose it shows all of it.

Rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen.

The last is purportedly a quote by Winston Churchill.

Currently the Six Nations Rugby Championships are being held. The six teams, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, France, England and Wales, are perineal rivals and the play is fast and fierce, with huge bragging rights on the line.

Last weekend I watched the England v France game on TV. While England dominated the play and won 44–8, it was not the scoring that made a lasting impression on me, but an incident between two players and the referee. Basically after a gang tackle one of the England players pretty obviously slapped a French player on the head and grabbed his head gear to pull him to the ground. There had been some extremely rough tackles previously and tempers were obviously hot. Quickly a pushing match ensued with players from both sides joining in.

After the referees separated the two teams, the Head Referee called over the offending England player and this team captain. I fully expected him to cite the rules of the game and send off the offender. Instead, he reminded both players about the “rugby values” of fair play and sportsmanlike conduct and how the only way this game works is for all players to live and play according to these rugby values.

What amazed me was that both the offending player and the captain looked seriously contrite and apologetic, knowing full well they had not only broken a sacred value, but let the game down. Promises were made and the game resumed, without any more incidents.

I contrast this to my experience of American football where the referee faces the crowd, used a microphone to recite the rules, and punishment is given to the offending team. Very often the guilty player throws a temper tantrum, proclaiming his innocence or blaming the other side. Great theatre, but poor sportsmanship.

The world of Rugby takes the game, and their values very seriously. These values not only define the game, but also define the players as well, and every member of a rugby organization, from the Scrum Half to the Head Office, believe in and uphold these values. In rugby, the values are the game!

Corporate Values Are Not the Game

Like rugby, most companies have a code of ethics and values and in many cases they are featured on the website, in the annual report, hung in the lobby and hallways. Some even have them in all meeting rooms. But in my 40 years of management consulting on leadership, culture and performance, it is rare as hen’s teeth to hear an employee being reminded by a manager or supervisor of the company values after a business breakdown, safety error, missed objective or cost overrun. Corporate values in most cases are a tick-the-box, HR or Corporate Communications event. And this is especially true when they are featured in annual performance reviews when bonuses are on the line.

Consider the staggering $350+ billion in fines for unethical behaviour in banking over the past 9 years. Don’t say this is the case of a few rotten apples. The culture of banking, and many other industries, runs on profit, not values. And in a culture where speaking up about potential ethical issues is slapped down and whistle blowers are vilified and bullied, senior managers resist looking “under the hood” when profits are high. Values and ethics sit at the back of the bus in many companies.

You may argue that business and rugby are different, one is just a game and the other is a serious enterprise with shareholders. True, but rugby is also a business with over 5 million active professional players worldwide and merchandising alone is a $2 billion business.

And here is something to think about. Rugby fans are fiercely fanatic about their clubs and worship the players. And they have to pay to watch. How many employees, who get paid, are as fanatic about their company and worship their senior managers?

I believe it has something to do with having written values versus living the values. In my view, values and profit are two sides of the same coin of commerce. Can values and profit coexist? I certainly hope so, otherwise business will never be the force for positive social leadership ad change that is could be.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to Rugby Values & Corporate Values

  1. Anonymous says:

    John, I have always appreciated the focus you place on Character building. Corporate life is often filled with distrust, hypocrisy and greed. Thanks for exhorting us that the consistent application of values will give honor to profit. You were a true sportsman in high school football and I was honored to be your teammate. Sincerely, Corey


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