‘I'd say to compete at a high level you need to admit you don’t know it all’

England rugby captain Owen Farrell speaks candidly about the search for improvement in self and team, the value of leadership and shared responsibility – and why an open and honest culture is central to delivering on outstanding potential.

Owen Farrell is no stranger to success. He knows what it takes to perform at the highest level. But despite impressive accolades – from multiple Premiership titles with Saracens to a Grand Slam with England – he is continually looking for ways to improve.
“I’d say, to compete at a high level you need to be open enough to admit that you don’t know it all,” says the England captain. “You probably never will. To be open enough to constantly learn and constantly get better is a massive quality. For me, it’s about having a clear goal. It’s about getting better and improving. If you’re open enough, explore ways to get there, then you’ll continue to grow as an individual and as a team.”
Farrell’s rise was rapid. He became the youngest player to appear in professional rugby union in England when he played for Saracens just 11 days after his 17th birthday. (The record was broken the following year when childhood friend and current England teammate George Ford came on for Leicester Tigers aged 16 years and 237 days.)
After a series of sublime performances, he was called up to the  England Elite Player Squad in 2012. At the time Farrell was the youngest player in the group, at the age of 20. 
Owen Farrell on debut

Farrell on his debut back in 2008, aged just 17 years and 11 days

The primacy of performance

But it’s a search for excellence and growth – not a hunt for glory – that sits at the heart of that early rise and his ongoing contributions to club and country. “There’s a lot of people who base their judgement on the trophies you lift or the games that you’ve won,” says Farrell. “But I think if you’re all open enough to want to improve constantly, then the accolades will come as a by-product.”
“For me it’s about what I’m involved in, it’s about trying to make myself a better player and trying to be as involved as I can in the team growing as well. That’s the important thing.” 

The need for leadership

His on-the-pitch consistency and that evident desire to lift his teammates saw him appointed England captain in March 2018 after skipper Dylan Hartley was ruled out through injury. Greater responsibility often adversely affects performance, but Farrell is adamant that the additional pressure, both on and off the pitch, has not changed his approach.
“Everything that I’m doing now, I would do even if I wasn’t captain,” he says. “There are a few added challenges. But a lot of them – including everything off the field, done in and around training and games – would be normal for a fly half.”
So what does Farrell see as the contribution of the captain? “I believe a big part of leadership is performing well yourself,” he admits. But, he adds: “You do what you can to get the team right, and get a sense for whether you’re in the right place. You’ve got to make sure you’re right yourself. It puts a good pressure on you.” 

Aiming for the collective goal

Farrell is clear that while there are natural leaders within any given group, everyone needs to contribute in order for a team to produce distinctive performances. And that means individuals must have the trust of the people around them. 
“The culture and the collective goal drives that,” he says. “It’s never one person, not in any environment that I’ve been in. It’s never one person speaking all the time. It’s never one person doing everything when you play well. It’s a group of people.”
Some teams have clear leadership groups and roles. Others are more collective. “But whichever model you follow, I’d say the more  that team players grab hold of the vision and make it into their own, the more powerful it becomes,” says Farrell. “I think it’s important the whole team owns the decisions. Whatever you’re trying to do, it’s important that you grab hold of it as a group, not just the senior people within the group, or one leader.”
Owen Farrell and George Ford

Owen Farrell with teammate and childhood friend, George Ford, celebrating victory. Ford originally broke Farrell's record as the youngest player to appear in English professional rugby union

Open cultures deliver results

To facilitate that team-wide contribution, good communication has to be a priority. But maintaining that openness in different contexts – not all of them positive – brings its own challenges. The solution is to roll your sleeves up, get involved and be open to learning new things regardless of how tough the lesson is. That’s why a supportive culture is key. 
“I’ve never been in an environment that I haven’t loved,” says Farrell. “I’ve always enjoyed going to international camps, I’ve always enjoyed coming back to the club, and everyone that I’ve been lucky enough to be coached by has created environments you couldn’t wait to be a part of. I’ve learnt so much from it. 
“But it’s not all down to the leadership team,” he continues. “I’ve found it can be hard to find a voice at first, but you need to find the confidence to speak out. I believe without this confidence, there can be too many things [to process]. You can become hesitant. And, for me, the most important thing is being decisive.”

Maintaining focus

Exceptional performances ratchet up hopes for the future. As the wins mount up and the trophy cabinet fills, expectation levels soar. But while the fans think about the next challenge, about surpassing past glories, Farrell is clear that the future success can only be achieved by concentrating on current challenges. 
“Most of our focus needs to be on the here and now,” he says. “For the groups that I am part of, especially at the club, it’s exciting that the core of the team has been together for so long, but still have their best rugby in front of them. 
“But, for me the only way that the team can realise that potential is by concentrating on what we can do now. It’s about what’s happening next, that’s the engaging bit. You enjoy being a part of the winning occasions, but it’s the very next challenge that’s exciting. I can’t wait to crack on with that.”