London Leadership - Clongowes Wood College

Posted: 4th May 2017

Gordon D’Arcy Clongowes London Leadership April 2017

Last Thursday April 27th, the annual Clongowes London Leadership series took place. Seventy plus UK based OC’s accompanied by some very welcome guests were privileged to gain considerable insights into the contemporary world of the professional rugby game. Gordon D’Arcy OC’98 (pictured above with Martin Nugent, Chair of Fundraising, Clongowes Wood College Foundation) opened a window on an 18 year professional rugby career and his candid sharing on leadership, transition and change management skills was compelling. He spoke on ‘Best practice and benefits of mental resilience in sport with insightful business parallels’.

Those of you who follow Gordon’s Irish Times column will not be surprised by his reflective powers and process orientation – qualities which lend themselves well to sharing insights with a familiar Clongowes audience. Some sound-bites we share below will remind attendees of key take-outs and may encourage those of you who missed it, to attend our next Clongowes Foundation Leadership series event in Dublin or London.

Ms Michelle Burke, Fundraising Manager, Clongowes Wood College Foundation

‘I turned Professional two weeks after my Leaving Certificate; played for Leinster two weeks after turning Pro; it should have been a clean playing trajectory but success is rarely a linear line. There are ups and downs, plenty of them along the way!

When I retired in 2015 I was

  • Leinster’s most capped player
  • After my last match I became Ireland’s longest serving International – I took the honour from the great Mike Gibson.

Then I took two months out, took time to reflect on the biggest portion of my life to date. In January 2016 – I was going into the real world.

What served me well during my career was my ability to reflect on challenges; how I dealt with them, what I could learn from them, and how I could use them to prepare for the next challenges. Mental resilience and leadership; it took me some time to work out what my Leadership style was. It took me until I was largely comfortable with myself. When my team members’ perspective of me aligned with what my own perspective of myself was; then I was in a happy place.

I’ve had four interesting points in my career

  1. I went Pro as an 18 year old and that’s affected me – a model on how not to go Pro.
  2. Saving my career at 20 years of age; having to save it is an interesting challenge to have to go through.
  3. Transforming my career – having saved it then being around for the next seven years.
  4. Maximising my career.

At 18 I wanted to be noticed – fast and furious. The arrival of the great Mattie Williams was a great watershed moment for me. He looked at me – this kid has talent, so I just presumed I’d be renewing my contract at the end of that season. That adage – ‘If you knew then what you know now’ applies. He invited me to his house for breakfast – he picked up his coffee and nonchalantly said, ‘we are not going to renew your contract’. It felt like the world was ending… I felt like I was the best player in the world…it clearly was an incredible reality check for a 20 year old to process. 30 seconds felt like four hours ‘You’ve four weeks to save your career – If you can prove to me that you’re worth keeping I’ll give you a contract on our terms. You can go to England, Munster, Ulster – wherever you want – or you can fight for it here’. Next stop was a conversation with my Dad – You’ve ******-up. My father is to the point – it’s his Modus Operandi. I started processing – asking hard questions. I’ve used this now through-out my career. Keep asking questions and answering them honestly. You might not like the answers you get but keep asking them. As a 20 year old, how you are given this information involves a lot of stress. I spoke to my dad and spoke to my agent at the time, Fintan Drury, who has gone on to become a confidant and friend. We decided on change. I wanted to be the best that I could be. There was a definite change in my mentality. I remember Keith Wood telling me at 19 that I was good enough to play for Ireland and while there were tough years ahead getting the 6 Nations Player of the Year in 2004 was hugely satisfying.


Success –You’re on a crest of a wave and then you hit new challenges – Can I be a World-class player? Can this be aligned with a sustainable way of reaching my goals? All this relies on my benefiting from what I learnt in those really tough years. I knew that nothing else Rugby would throw at me would ever be that tough again. Whatever it is I knew that I could get through it. I might not want to but I will be able to. It’s back to the process that I was trying to develop.

The next point in my career was at about 30 when I realised that my line breaks were falling from 6 or 7 a game to 3 or 4 a game. Something was changing and it was probably me! Somewhat older, a little bit slower, less athletic, so I had to reinvent myself – can I be a defensive player? Can I change my game? When you’re 5”10 as a player you give up about a stone and a half to everybody on the rugby pitch. Making that decision to go in for it, presented two challenges for me.

  1. Could I move from the space that when you’re on the attack you’re quite ‘visible’ and you get all the accolades, to defence; into hitting and rucking and counter rucking. You don’t get that many mentions, could my ego handle that?
  2. What’s the over-riding factor? It’s that I want to keep playing this game as long as possible. If I keep playing the attacking game I’m going to be over taken, by someone younger and faster than me, so I needed to change.

Once I got comfortable with that, I made the initial decision to go to the coaches, go to all the other guys and say – ‘listen, I’d like to get bit more involved in defence’ – they were receptive. It seemed to be good timing and in 2013 we played New Zealand in the Aviva. That was the pinnacle of that third coming in my career. Arguably had I not dropped a ball just before half time that would have been the most complete game that I ever played. Typical Joe Schmidt ‘ah so close, if you just had got that ball’.

I remember at 28 going back to College to do Economics because I thought – ‘hey I might be done by 30’. At 33, I signed a two year extension. The big thing for me at that point was to maximise my career. As I go back through the different dawns of my career, this was a crucial point on my Leadership career. We know that you can’t put an old head on young shoulders but you can talk to the younger guys, using your own experience.

To create Leinster Leadership we decided to create the right environment. One of the things we talk about in Leinster is about being ‘Caretakers of Culture’. When we eventually figured out what a culture was, I felt an obligation to carry that through. That’s how my leadership style is realised – I’m the guy who tells and shows what I do. Let them learn by mistakes but then when they make mistakes don’t use it as a stick to beat them use it as a stick to raise the bar for them.

I have maximised my rugby career. I had a shaky start and over 18 years it wasn’t perfect! There were the three years until I was 23 when I first played for Ireland. There was that five year period – what could I have done? What could I have been? And then I snap out of it … I’m who I am today because of all the experiences along the way. I wouldn’t change them for a heart-beat.

There are lessons from rugby that I’ll take with me forever. I’ve tried to help the younger guys in the academy with their lessons. I learnt the really hard way how not to do it. I’m the test case scenario for all the other guys – this is how you don’t do it; you show them how to do it. I feel lucky because I’ll be able to pass this along to my kids as well. When they ask some of those tough questions I hope I’ll have a little bit of that institutional knowledge now that I’ll be able to pass on to them.

Lessons from Rugby pertinent to this evening’s theme of the benefits of mental resilience in sport include:

  • Attitude to failure sometimes people are afraid to fail. You get into that whole group-methodology at work. If you don’t take risks you don’t know if it works. The beautiful paradox about success is that success is built on failure. Definitely in Leinster our success is built on 11 years of failure. In the 18 years of my career there were 11 years with no trophies. Along with some of my colleagues we are the most decorated players in Irish Rugby history. When you don’t have it and then get it, make hay when the sun is shining.
  • The highs and lows of selection. I didn’t play for Ireland until I was 23. One of the most frustrating things in Rugby is when you are in a squad of 30 and there are 22 people selected. When you are one of those guys #1 – 8 being sent home every week … for 5 years. That’s a really hard place to be.
  • It’s really important to be able to ‘draw the line in the sand’ when you finish playing because when you are a rugby player you live in a bubble. I can’t emphasise this enough – we used to get a schedule and it would have every hour of every day, three weeks in advance telling you exactly where to be, what group you are in, and colour co-ordinated even with a picture of the clothes you are supposed to be wearing. And still people got it wrong!

Professional rugby is about removing every possible distraction so people can perform at this peak state – peak flow. You only have 80 minutes to express yourself every week, it’s bizarre. When you delve into the pressure of sports – it’s a bizarre life because so much prep goes into a tiny percentage of every week and then you leave that! Professional sport is perpetual – it’s always moving. And then at some stage as a professional rugby player you stand still one day and professional sport just rolls past. You just get spat out of the bubble and that’s quite a challenge. But we spend so much time preparing and getting ready – you hear Joe Schmidt talking about preparing for every eventuality. I’m sure the Lions are talking about every permutation, every combination, everything. You prepare for it to be right. So there is a moral obligation for professional sports people to prepare for when they finish because you don’t know when that will be. It could be at 22 or 23, Owen O’Malley, bust his knee – gone. It could be 35 but there is an obligation to prepare, so those who prepare do better when they come out of it. I went back to College – I did work experience while I was playing to try to mitigate as much of the transition. And I thought I had it licked to be honest – but once you come out of it – the challenges just keep coming.

One of the biggest issues coming out of sport is the loss of identity. It probably helped me that I played in the professional amateur era where we trained two and a half days per week while we were getting paid. It was largely amateur era, there was no social media. What you’re seeing now are professional sports people over identifying with sports. That’s who they are and that’s what defines them as a person – that’s their shield for everything. When you take that away from them it moves on very quickly. So from the time I announced my retirement, I received one letter from Leinster, something in the post from Ireland and that’s the last contact I had from them. That’s just the way Life is – it just tips on. That’s made me think a lot about the pit-falls of coming out of Rugby. People now talk about the similarities and challenges of coming out of professional sport and coming out of the military. One of the things that the great Declan Kidney, the U19’s coach, talked about was achieving balance in your life. We used to laugh at him for most of my career but half way through it I thought – damn it, he’s onto something here. So balance, it’s something to take away – because you just live in rugby for a time. Rugby will happily let you live in there and you think it will be there forever but it knows it’s going to kick you out – whenever it’s done with you.

Challenges have included moving from a physically active to a sedentary day because there is an underlying competitiveness in me that will never die. I got to express that bodily on a daily basis – my favourite person to compete with was myself and I don’t get to exercise that now. That’s hard. The challenge for me is to find an outlet for that now.

The one bit of advice I do give Rugby players when they are finishing is do prepare for life after professional sport. Get ready for it as best you can. For those who do transition successfully – the business world is ready to welcome you with open arms.

Dermot Waldron OC’78 Director Cavendish Conference Centre generously supported Clongowes Foundation by hosting the London Leadership series in their Hallam Street venue in Westminster London. Please view should you require conference and event facilities in London.

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