It was interesting to watch the aftermath of the England Rugby World Cup campaign. It followed a sadly typical pattern, which goes something like: that was an awful performance, there must be someone to blame, let’s have an enquiry and then sack those who took the decisions. Broadly speaking, this is the way with public life these days – and indeed even with not so public life. We live in a very results driven society, which has little time for failure and which is desperate to apportion blame when something goes wrong – and in the sporting world it is usually the Head Coach who takes the rap. In some ways, one can understand this. In the case of the England rugby team, it is the best funded side in the world and serves a population bigger than almost all other major rugby playing nations. Should not those facts alone mean that success is more likely than not? And therefore is not failure simply unacceptable?
But in fact history tells us the opposite story. How do you learn if you are not allowed to fail? Surely anyone who has been perfect all their lives will fall apart when things go wrong, as they inevitably do. Much better, usually, to embrace and accept failure as part of a learning process, one from which you can improve rather than be consigned to the rubbish heap. Rugby has its own well known examples, including that of Clive Woodward, who led England to their only World Cup win in 2003 having endured an awful tournament in charge in 1999. His bosses had the courage then to stick with him, though only just, and it paid off: Clive learned from his mistakes and soon became Sir Clive. It works in other spheres too. Thank goodness Winston Churchill stuck at it after a terrible school career, where mostly he had the lowest scores in the lowest sets; another school failure, Steven Spielberg was rejected from the University of California three times, before making a lot of money and essentially buying his way to an honorary degree. And famously, arguably the most brilliant of all American presidents, Abraham Lincoln, lost more jobs and failed in more elections than almost anyone in political history. There’s a old Hindu proverb which says that no doctor is any good until he has killed one or two patients. This is rather extreme, I admit – but you understand the gist. We live in a risky world; we will lose sometimes. We will make some poor decisions. But these are the beginnings of success. So I for one (without all the facts of course) think the RFU handled the Lancaster situation poorly and unwisely.
However, there is one further reason why I feel this way about Lancaster’s demise, and it was beautifully articulated in the Telegraph by Paul Ackford over the weekend. What about the players? Do they bear no responsibility for losing? This is a critical question. These players are fully grown men, very highly paid professionals, who have been playing rugby all their lives, many of them with significant international experience. Come to think if it, if one considers it that way, should they need a coach at all? Should they not have to take responsibility for their own actions? Are they not the people, when instant decisions have to be made, who have the power to do so, the power to change the course of a match for better or worse? Yet so far as I can make out, only a couple of them have said that they should have done things differently and have therefore displayed that they might just have learnt something from failure along the way.
The reason I say all this now is because I have been reading your reports all weekend. Some of you will have glowing reports; and some will be not so good. Which are more useful? The glowing or the not so good? And how do you react to a not so good report? Do you apportion blame on others? The teacher perhaps? The boy sitting next to you in class who distracts you? Working conditions in the boarding house or maybe at home? Or do you look to yourself for a way to improve? No blame; simply an attitude of self-improvement. A take it on the chin; yes, he may have been right there; he might have a point; what can I do about it? Do you give yourself the chance to be a Churchill or a Spielberg?
Personally, I would love to live in a world where blame was the last thought rather than the first one, that was always trying to improve, that shunned cynicism or mistrust. It is one of the reasons I like school so much; we are not a million miles away from it here. So if you get a report which contains significant criticism this term, well done. It’s useful; and IF you treat it in the right frame of mind, there is an excellent chance that it will be the start of something great.