Michael Cheika’s grew up in a tightly knit Lebanese family in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The family dynamic he grew up with has influenced his leadership style, helping him to rebuild the Wallabies esprit de corp by adopting an approach that places the Rugby team ‘family’ firmly at the centre. A family in which he is the patriarch.
Cheika describes himself as a non-team player, but it is clear that he recognises the importance of building strong relationships amongst team members, similar to family. Cheika’s success in transforming the Australian Wallabies team has centred on building a culture of trust within the team and strengthening the quality of the individual relations between team members, a strategy that is clearly paying significant dividends for the Wallabies’ 2015 World Cup campaign.
The Australian Wallabies qualification for this Sunday’s Rugby World Cup final against the All Blacks has unquestionably been the result of coach Cheika’s extraordinary coaching style since his appointment as the Wallabies head coach in October 2014. Cheika took the reins at a low point in the team’s history. After the Wallabies World Cup win against France in 1999, the Australian team endured a series of very public setbacks, high turnover amongst coaches, leadership disharmony and player discord. This led to the team’s ranking sliding dramatically to sixth in the world. Cheika’s no-nonsense approach signalled a turning point and indicated the Australian Rugby Union Board’s determination to try an innovative approach to lead the Wallabies out of the sporting wilderness, and attempt to placate Australian supporters and sponsors.
In less than a year at the helm, Cheika has achieved what appeared an impossible task. Team morale has been reinvigorated, and there is now a spirit of “whatever it takes.” Another hallmark of Cheika’s coaching and leadership style is focused on encouraging team members to work together to make small improvements, either on the field or as people. Cheika argues that by team members focusing on small yet significant individual improvements, then team improvements will follow.
Cheika’s meticulous planning, attention to detail and mix of determination and affability has made him a successful leader both on and off the field. Cheika’s true grit and uncompromising attitude has ruffled feathers along the way. It is however his combination of experience as a player for Randwick Rugby Club, his coaching of the Waratahs, and his success in business that has laid foundations for the Wallabies’ resurgence.
Off-field efforts have clearly contributed to the team’s success. Early on, Cheika recognised the need for stability and certainty within the team. His involvement in off-field decisions, such as the re-appointment of Stephen Moore as captain provided that stability, which in turn put an end to the distractions dogging the Wallabies performance. Cheika also successfully convinced the Australian Rugby Union to relax its eligibility policy and appoint overseas-based players such as Matt Giteauto the Wallabies team.
Cheika’s approach to coaching and leadership highlights a number of important lessons for leaders. By building much deeper personal connections, team members can confidently focus on individual improvements, safe in the knowledge that they are part of something bigger. Secondly, leaders need to have the courage and strength of conviction to make difficult decisions that may not necessarily be fully understood by all. Thirdly leaders need to have the foresight and vision to know how to approach each obstacle that lies in their way. Often the most logical way forward may not necessarily be the best option, and true grit and determination might be the only way to overcome seemingly impossible challenges.