​Four in a Row: Brian Cody’s Lessons for Leaders from a Life in Sport

When it comes to leading teams to continued high performance over long periods of time, few can match the experience of Brian Cody. Widely considered as the greatest manager in hurling history,Cody guided the Kilkenny senior men’s team to 43 national and provincial honours including 11 Senior All-Irelands as well as the famous four-in-a-row championship wins between 2006 and 2009.

What’s less well known is that Brian is also an alumnus of Timoney Leadership Institute and an eager student of the parallels between business and sport. He’s often asked to speak about leadership because of those parallels. During a fireside chat with Professor Anneloes Raes of IESE Business School, hosted by Timoney Leadership Institute, he shared some insights from his career.

Spirit of success: creating a culture

Success wasn’t preordained for Kilkenny when Cody took the manager’s seat in 1998. And although winning was the goal, it wasn’t his first objective. “My biggest ambition at the time was just to build a spirit within the whole hurling community in Kilkenny, to create a culture… Kilkenny is a hugely committed, passionate hurling county and everybody matters,” he said.

In other words, the team was answerable to the county board, to the community and the supporters. For a parallel in business, those external stakeholders might be customers, shareholders or the board of directors.

Creating this culture laid the groundwork for what would follow. Mindful of this responsibility, Cody set the tone where “every time we go on the field, we never give less than 100 per cent. Otherwise, we’re disrespecting the people who really cared about it … Everybody had their own contribution to make, as a supporter, player, official. So respect ran right through the fabric of the whole thing and that created what we would always refer to it as an unbreakable spirit,” he said.

Resilience and being ready for anything

This culture strengthened them for the highs and – just as importantly – the lows; the down times and setbacks which are a part of business as they are in sport. “That’s when your spirit really matters. And that spirit allows you to bounce back, gives that resilience to say ‘there’s no end to us’,” Cody said.

Professor Raes observed that younger generations can feel a sense of entitlement and research has shown this can lead to lower resilience – another key quality that Cody wanted to foster in his teams. In his experience, that sense of entitlement can disappear quickly, when new members of the team are exposed to the group spirit that’s already in place.

“To me, the solution at all times was what? Back to culture. Back to spirit, back to the environment that’s there. They come in and they learn from the players who were there already to see the ethic that’s there. The work ethic that’s there. The honesty that’s there, the lack of ego that is there,” he said.

Here are four key leadership lessons from the fireside chat.

Lesson one: humility is the leader’s most important quality

“I always put top of the list: humility. To me, it’s vital. If you are the leader or the star player or you have this media profile or whatever, suddenly you begin to feel kind of important. You don’t have the answer to everything. Everybody knows something, but nobody knows everything. You can pick up nuggets of information everywhere, at a team meeting, from a very, very quiet player. But where humility is missing, there’s the danger of ego taking over. Ego is treacherous. It infects the group as far as I’m concerned. You have to park it outside your door because ego sucks the spirit out of the group.”

Lesson two: zero tolerance for selfish performers

Cody was always watchful for signs of the wrong attitude that could infect the group. “If he has developed that swagger and everything is handed to him on a plate, well then his work rate diminishes very, very quickly. We would have had a few of those. Now I know it’s easier in sports. We can say, ‘Look, this is not working out’. Not as easy in business, not as easy in employment. But I think it’s very important that you invest the time in it. We had no rules nor regulations, never had any of those kind of things. The one understanding we had – and they did understand it, because we spelled it out to them – was that anybody who would do anything to damage our spirit, then he would be on borrowed time for sure – anyone deliberately damaging our spirit by becoming selfish, or thinking about himself, or putting himself ahead at the team’s expense.” Cody says this approach “always worked. Because the door was always there if it didn’t”.

Lesson three: always remember your responsibilities as a leader

Cody never planned for such a lengthy tenure leading Kilkenny’s hurling team. Enjoying the work was key, but he stressed that the work “can never become routine”. “You have to constantly say to yourself, now what are you doing? Why are you here? Who you’re representing or what’s going on? Reminding yourself of the responsibility that you have. And there was huge responsibility because the tradition is there. The history is there. The expectation is there. If you like, it’s like business. I wanted to be there and I enjoyed it. And I always said to myself, if it even enters my mind that I want to stop, then you have to stop.”

Lesson four: the buck stops with the leader – especially in the down times

“I remember being interviewed by media after a match we lost and saying that display was down to me, as that’s my responsibility. That got me huge respect from the players because I think the leader can never defer the blame. If you’re the leader, like I was that day, and the driving was not there in the team, then that’s not down to them. That’s down to how they were prepared. That’s down to me. I took full responsibility. I said that’s not about the players. I think it’s a hugely important part of leadership — you cannot just pass the buck to someone else. It always starts and stops with the person in charge.”