• Toby Sinclair

Leadership Lessons: Alex Sanderson | Sale Sharks Rugby


Alex Sanderson Leadership Lessons

Alex Sanderson is Director of Rugby at Sale Sharks. He is a former England Rugby International and coach at Saracens.


I'm a huge Sale Sharks Fan. Rugby has always been a passion since I was a teenager. As a proud Northerner Sale Sharks have always been my team.


Alex Sanderson is interviewed in this awesome episode of The Good, The Bad, The Rugby.



Leadership Lessons


Here are 5 leadership lessons from the interview:

  1. Start with who

  2. High-Performance Formula

  3. Build Social Capital

  4. Managing Pressure

  5. Utopia is Self-Managing Teams


Start With Who


Alex emphasised the importance of Identity. You need to understand who you aspire to be. Everything else comes from that.


I'm not certain but I imagine Alex has been inspired by Atomic Habits.


James Clear highlights the importance of Identity-based habits:


“With outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to achieve. With identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to become.”

- James Clear Atomic Habits


Alex focuses on these areas in the following order:

  1. Who do we aspire to be? (Identity)

  2. Why do we aspire to be that? (Values)

  3. How will we get there? (Process)


Many coaches focus on the reverse. Process first. This might lead to short term results but rarely leads to long term success.




High-Performance Formula


Alex shared an interesting formula that leads to successful teams:

If you get these right it will create a high-performance culture within your team/organisation.


I was curious about Social Desirability in particular. Alex shared that this is when you behave in a certain way to be with the in-crowd. You play a certain way because it's popular or you behave in a way that will make people like you.


To break this behaviour you must be clear on your identity. This becomes your compass not what others expect from you.



Build Social Capital


Alex highlights the importance of building social capital within organisations.



You can do this through micro-conversations every day. Each interaction provides an opportunity to build social capital.


Over time the product of these mico-conversations is deeper, more meaningful interactions.



Managing Pressure


A managers role is to remove fear and pressure, not to add them on

This was my favourite quote from the podcast. It's common that managers apply pressure on people assuming that will lead to higher performance. This often leads to the opposite, lower performance.


This is also connected to our Try Harder bias. When we fail or don't perform we can easily jump to trying harder. In the example of sport, this might be increasing the intensity of training sessions. Whilst this might help release some tension it often compounds the problems.


Focus on removing pressure.


Utopia is Self-Managing Teams


Alex shared several times that his vision of a high-performing team is a self-managing team.


In sport, there is a stereotype of the autocratic leader who directs the team on what to do. I debunked this when I analysed how Eddie Jones coaches the England Rugby Team.


Alex focuses on how he can build more autonomy within the team. He focuses on letting the team take more responsibility for how the team is managed. He shares that this can be a challenge. You might give too much ownership when the team isn't ready. Alex uses open questions to invite input from teams.