What foreign coaches can teach us about leadership and team performance

December in Australia is a time when everyone wastes far too much time watching cricket. Mostly this is an experience of national pride, where we rely on our cricketers to humble the English, New Zealanders, or South Africans.  Mostly it is a happy experience. In 2013 it was not. How does this proud sporting nation explain our string of losses that year in Rugby and in Cricket. Some Australian sports commentators thought they had an answer. Foreign coaches are the problem.

On the 8th December, Sydney Morning Herald writer David Sygall penned an article Why the distrust of foreign coaches?

Many wonder how a German football coach, a Kiwi rugby coach, or a South African cricket coach, can truly understand Australian sporting culture, the Australian psyche, what makes Australians tick, and other intangibles. How can they really understand the way the public wants our teams to behave and play? Can we genuinely trust foreign coaches to make decisions in the nation’s best interests? And when they make the wrong decisions, how much slack are we willing to cut them compared to [a local] version?

Sygall is wrong about foreign coaches being the cause of our sporting woes but he has raised important questions about why “outsider” leaders have difficulty in influencing followers, engendering trust, group cohesion and follower motivation.

Like many, Sygall understand the problem to be one of “cultural differences”. But crying cultural differences doesn’t actually tell us much at all. It is the intergroup version of “personality clash”, used to describe all the sources of confusion and conflict that no one ever sees coming. It certainly doesn’t help answer questions like those Sygall has asked.

The social identity approach does have some answers to these questions.

Critical for team performance and team success is a coach’s capacity to turn their vision, strategies, and tactics, into the players’ vision, strategies and tactics. To do this a coach must be a leader for those players. Someone who players listen to, trust, and hold in high regard. To be a leader a coach must be one of us.

We have touched on this before. Research has consistently found that leadership relies on the display of qualities, attributes, and behaviours that emphasise what they have in common with their followers.[1][2][3][4][5] This also means that they also need to emphasise how they are different from the members of other relevant groups (e.g. a relevant comparison group for Australian cricketers might be English cricketers).

The reason for this is that, when a shared social identity exists, it is person who can best represent that identity who will have the most influence.[6][7][8] This is because the person who best represents the psychological group, or is most “prototypical”, is also the person who comes to define what it is to be ‘us’.[9][10] By being “one of us” there is an implicit perception that the leader represents what is important to us and that they can be trusted to pursue our best interest.

Remember, those more central to an ingroup have greater leadership potential. Those outside an ingroup have no leadership potential.

Remember, those more central to the ingroup have greater leadership potential. Those outside the ingroup have no leadership potential.

Ingroup representativeness is associated with a raft of enviable outcomes. Michael Hogg sums this up well: “prototypical leaders are able to be influential, innovative, and transformational because their followers like them, afford them high status, trust them, and view them as relatively charismatic.”[11]

How does one establish him or herself as prototypical of their group?

Darren Lehmann is the current Australian cricket coach. He is a former Australian player from a “golden era” of cricket and has a good record as a cricket coach at state level. He has close relationships with Australian cricket legends such as Shane Warne and Craig Mcdermott, who he has brought in as trainers and mentors.  He has concentrated on building good technical training and support, but also on player welfare and wellbeing. In the most recent series he kept the same team for every game, allowing a strong sense of team identity to develop. Although he didn’t get instant results – he lost the ashes in June in UK – he was given the time to deliver results which he now has.[12] He is overweight, smokes, drinks, and his nickname is ‘Boof’; he is practically a walking Australian stereotype.  In Feb 2014 he was the 2nd most popular person in the country. Lehmann is, in many ways, the ultimate respected insider

Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. Mickey Arthurs was Lehmann’s predecessor. A South African, he is a highly successful and skilled cricket coach, but what worked for him in South Africa couldn’t be replicated in the Australian team. When he tried to introduce his own recipe for success the level of conflict in the team rose and the team fragmented into factions (e.g. the cool kids, the outsiders, and the teachers). There was tension and conflict within the team, culminating in the dramatic dropping of four players in the middle of the Indian test matches. The team added a loss in India to their string of disappointments.

Were his techniques wrong? Were the players not good enough? We can’t rule these possibilities out. What we can say though is that Arthurs wasn’t in any obvious way taking the necessary steps to make himself one of the team. As someone starting from the outer, without taking those steps Arthur was always going to be missing a critical ingredient for success.

Where Sygall and others are wrong is that the poor performance of Australian teams was unlikely due to the “foreignness” of the coaches. A group based schism like nationality is not necessarily a death knell for leadership, even in a context where national pride runs hot. You just have to work for it. An aspiring leader needs to be an “entrepreneur of identity”;[13][14][15] they need to embody those things that mark out the distinctiveness of the group. In most cases this will require high levels of skill and energy.

One foreign coach who was an entrepreneur of identity is Guus Hiddink, the successful Dutch coach of the Australian national soccer team. Sygall quotes this account from Hiddink’s assistant coach Graham Arnold:

The thing that really stood out for me with Guus was that he was a marvel at wanting to understand the Australian mentality. He didn’t want to change anything. He frequently said to me ‘I need to become Australian. They don’t need to become Dutch’. He just wanted to improve what we were already good at – the never-say-die attitude – he didn’t want to change us. A foreign coach works when they buy into it, when they try to really understand what we’re about.

Guus is a case study in the skill and effort required to become one of the team. He built followership by displaying group-oriented motives and actions. Critically, he was a champion the Australian-ness of the Australian team. That’s a powerful demonstration of ingroup credentials.

Taken together Darren Lehmann, Mickey Arthurs, and Guus Hiddink (from left to right) provide an excellent example of different leadership circumstances.

Can a foreign coach be successful? The answer is yes. Thanks to the social identity approach, however, we can better understand when and how. And it isn’t nationality at the heart of the issue, nor cultural differences. Any leader, if they are to have influence and impact must understand the identity of their followers and help to define that identity. With this understanding they must then be one of us and perhaps, above all, they must be seen to champion the group’s interest above all else.


[1] Platow, M. J., & van Knippenberg, D. (2001). A social identity analysis of leadership endorsement: The effects of leader ingroup prototypicality and distributive intergroup fairness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(11), 1508-1519.

[2] Ullrich, J., Christ, O., & van Dick, R. (2009). Substitutes for procedural fairness: Prototypical leaders are endorsed whether they are fair or not. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(1), 235.

[3] Van Knippenberg, B., & Van Knippenberg, D. (2005). Leader self-sacrifice and leadership effectiveness: the moderating role of leader prototypicality. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(1), 25.

[4] Haslam, S. A., & Platow, M. J. (2001). The link between leadership and followership: How affirming social identity translates vision into action. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(11), 1469-1479.

[5] Duck, J. M., & Fielding, K. S. (2003). Leaders and their treatment of subgroups: Implications for evaluations of the leader and the superordinate group. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33(3), 387-401.

[6] Hogg, M. A. (2001). A social identity theory of leadership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 184-200.

[7] Haslam, S. A., & Platow, M. J. (2001). The link between leadership and followership: How affirming social identity translates vision into action. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(11), 1469-1479.

[8] Hogg, M. A., & Turner, J. C. (1987). Social identity and conformity: a theory of referent informational influence. In W. Doise & S. Moscovici (Eds.), Current issues in european social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 139-177): Cambridge University Press.

[9] Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D., & Wetherell, M. S. (1987). Rediscovering the Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory. Blackwell: Oxford.

[10] Turner, J. C. (1991). Social influence: Milton Keynes: Open Psychology Press.

[11] Hogg, M., A. (2005). “One of Us; Social Identity, Group Belonging and Leadership.” Working Papers, Center For Public Leadership, DSpace@MIT, 16

[12] In the 2013/14 Ashes series Australia again defeated England 5 nil. In February & March 2014 Australia beat the number 1 team in the world South Africa 2-1. As of 2014 Australia ranked 1st on the ICC International One Day Rankings.

[13] Reicher, S., & Hopkins, N. (2001). Self and nation: Categorization, contestation and mobilization: Sage Publications Ltd.

[14] Reicher, S., Haslam, S. A., & Hopkins, N. (2005). Social identity and the dynamics of leadership: Leaders and followers as collaborative agents in the transformation of social reality. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(4), 547-568.

[15] Turner, J. C., Reynolds, K. J., & Subasic, E. (2008). Identity confers power: The new view of leadership in social psychology. Public Leadership, 57.

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