TODAY’S NEWS THAT Paul O’Connell has retired with immediate effect was undoubtedly a sad moment for Irish Sport.
The defining characteristics of good leadership have long been subject to much debate, particularly in the context of sport.
Some would argue that the single most important facet of a leader is the ability to lead by example solely through your performances, while others would argue that a great leader is vociferous and inspirational in equal measure.
A great leader
Other attributes that have been mentioned include the ability to be decisive when the pressure is on, having empathy towards opponents and teammates, showing confidence, honesty, friendliness, intelligence, talent, etc. The list goes on.
However, what made Paul O’Connell different from your average leader was that he encompassed all of the above. From the moment he first pulled on the red of Munster or the green of Ireland, he brought something different. Indeed, it was no coincidence that Munster and Ireland’s rise to prominence in European and World rugby over the past 15 years coincided with O’Connell’s career.
Accountability is often mentioned when debating what makes a strong leader. In his captaincy roles with Munster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions, O’Connell was never one to shy away from his obligations to the media and was often the one to break boundaries between players from different countries and backgrounds.
Respect and admiration
Indeed, we have seen the respect and admiration in which he is held in today by the sheer volume of tweets and posts from fans, former teammates and opponents.
His determination was unrivalled in rugby. Even at the age of 36, having suffered a hamstring tear off the bone, he still firmly believed he would be able to make a full recovery and play a key role in a star-studded Toulon side.
Don’t get me wrong – O’Connell had bags of talent too. He was a superb ball carrier, a ferocious tackler, a genius at calling plays and an out-and-out workhorse. Quite often great leaders lack the ability to keep their place in a team long-term.
Not O’Connell. Even at 36 he was still the first name on the team sheet every week.
But arguably O’Connell’s biggest attribute was his ability to inspire. We have all seen his famous ‘Fear of God’ speech prior to the first rugby Test at Croke Park – a perfect example of his ability to motivate and inspire his teammates.
But the old cliché that claims you should never meet your heroes for fear of disappointment didn’t apply to O’Connell. He always had time for supporters and would regularly be the last player into the dressing room after training as he waited back to sign autographs and take pictures. He was the perfect example to kids.
A true gentleman
His gentlemanly and good-humoured character off the field is a further testament to his leadership qualities. O’Connell was always humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
It seems strange to be wishing him goodbye so soon after the tributes came pouring in for him after his international career ended at the Rugby World Cup. In some sense, the Irish public had already said their goodbyes to Paulie.
However, I think that a lot of us took some consolation in the thought that we could still eagerly follow his career from a distance once he began his new adventure with Toulon.
Alas, it was not to be, and although it is a pity we will never see him playing rugby again, we will be forever grateful for the countless memories and the shining example of outstanding leadership he left for our children.
James Galvin is the CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport – The Voice of Irish Sport. Follow the Federation on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.