I've always been a huge rugby fan. I'm too old and broken to play anymore, but I still love to watch.
Last night I watched my son play in a local game. The atmosphere was great, there were maybe 150 spectators enjoying a warm summer evening and a closely fought local derby, but the overwhelming feature of the game was the referee's whistle. He just did not stop blowing it.
Now, like many other rugby fans around the world, I have been avidly watching the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa over the last few weeks. For the uninitiated, the British and Irish Lions are a team selected from the very best Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English players, which comes together for a tour every four years. The opponents alternate between the three big southern hemisphere teams, New Zealand, Australia and this year's hosts South Africa, the current World Champions. This, for many, is the pinnacle of international rugby. The games are a joy to watch. Like many top-level sporting events, the action just seems to flow. It's breathtakingly fast and non-stop.
So what's the difference between the games at the highest level and the one I saw last night at my local club? Well, admittedly, the pace was a little slower, but it didn't seem to me that there were significantly more mistakes being made or fouls being committed, which would lead to the referee blowing his whistle and stopping the game more often. But blow it he did. Again and again and again.
The difference, I think, is the attitude of the referee. Referees at the highest level realise that it is not about them. Like the very best leaders, they do not need to show everyone that they are in charge. Unlike the referee last night, they understand that their job is to facilitate the game - to maintain the flow. They do what they can within the laws of the game to keep the momentum. They understand that once the momentum is lost, it's hard to get it going again.
Sure, mistakes happen, but as long as no one is hurt or seriously disadvantaged, it is much better to let minor mistakes rectify themselves and the game flow. So lead like a top-class referee - don't blow your whistle and stop the flow if you don't really need to. You are there to facilitate and enable great team performances, not to assert your authority at every minor infringement.
A referee has had a good game if you don't notice them. The same goes for leaders.