‘Where Are They Now?’: Aidan McCullen
April 7, 2021 9:36 am Site Editor
THEN: Now 44, Aidan McCullen earned 57 caps for Leinster between 2001 and 2005, was capped once by Ireland and also represented Dax, Toulouse and London Irish.
NOW: He lives with his wife Niamh and boys Josh (11) and Jake (8) in Terenure. He is an organisational change consultant, hosts the global podcast ‘The Innovation Show’, lectures in Trinity College Business School and is author of a new book ‘Undisruptable’.
“Talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller-blades, there’s lots of movement, but no direction.”
No, this is not the latest outlandish quote from Eric Cantona, French football’s enigmatic genius.
This is the paraphrasing of American author H. Jackson Browne Jr’s description about how talent without discipline is not enough.
Aidan McCullen is candid enough to concede he has had one, not the other. He has always been all about showing up and doing the work.
He was that way as a child, often last pick on the playground.
He was that way at Castleknock College. He was that way for Leinster Schools. He was that way for Dax, for Leinster, for Toulouse, for London Irish and for his Ireland cap.
It is the 44-year-old’s commitment to give everything that has led to the incremental rise in his post-rugby career to stand proud as a multi-purpose contributor to society in his work at Trinity College Dublin and as the host of global podcast, ‘The Innovation Show’, recently rated one of the top podcasts in the world by Forbes.
“One of the biggest things rugby gave me is the understanding that hard work pays off,” he says.
“I didn’t come from a rugby background at all. I was often last-picked growing up. At school, my friends were better than me. They just were. They often lacked the discipline to realise their potential.
“Discipline was one of the great gifts that sport gave me,” he says.
To understand his story, you have to start at the collection of ‘misfits’ that formed the Castleknock College U-16s.
“That’s when I got the ‘grá’ for it. I was the captain and I started to get good at the game. From there, after a summer of hard training, I made the Senior Cup team and we made the Leinster Schools semi-finals in 1994 and 1995.
This led to the offer of the last place – this information was shared by the head coach – on the Leinster Schools squad’s summer tour to Australia.
By the end, McCullen was voted Player of the Tour, earning a place in the Irish Academy, led by Steve Aboud, Heinrich Kruger and Phil Lawlor.
“I was the wild card. My dad was interviewed to see if I was the right kind of kid for the Academy.
“He was asked: ‘Does Aidan love rugby?’ He said: ‘I don’t think he even has a rugby ball. All he could tell them was that I worked hard and studied hard for my leaving cert.”
That was the beginning in earnest. McCullen moved to Lansdowne, captained the Leinster U-19s and U-20s and, eventually, the Leinster first team. He played for the Ireland U-21s in 1998 and was a regular on the Irish Sevens.
McCullen has always held onto a different way of looking at the world. It emerged in his unusual first step into professional rugby.
“When I think about my rugby career, I look back and see how you have to make things happen for yourself. You can’t just wait. You have to push on whatever levers you have.”
This was evident in how the then Trinity College student turned his German and French Erasmus exchange into a contract.
“There was a guy in my class, a mature student and a big rugby fan, Barry O’Rafferty from Skerries.
“He religiously read the French sports paper ‘L’Equipe’. I never read the sports pages. I just wasn’t a sporting person, at all. Even today, I don’t watch games, except when my kids play.
“Anyway, Barry said to me one day, ‘Your written French needs work and a great way to do that is to read. Here, I think you should read L’Equipe’.
“He handed it over to me, folded on the rugby page. The title of the main article was ‘Dax En Crise’, Dax in crisis.
“It was the only article I read in the paper. It was about how this club Dax had been devastated by the loss of their best players, Olivier Magne, Raphael Ibanez, Fabien Pelous. I never forgot it.
“Coincidentally, I wanted to go to Germany and France as part of the Erasmus exchange. I tried to find out which Irish players had played in France. One was Dean McCartney, the Ulster No 8, and the other was Donal Spring, as luck would have it, from my club Lansdowne.
“This is what I mean about pushing levers. ‘Springer’ had actually played with the Dax President Eric Auguste, the father of France hooker Benoit, in Bagneres.”
Dax! Was it fate? Was it a head-scratching coincidence? McCullen didn’t wait. He hatched a plan. Spring made contact with Auguste and a verbal agreement was quickly reached.
“I did three months in Germany where I did my final exams and trained like a madman, two to three times a day, while eating 12 times-a-day to fuel the work.
“Aldi and Lidl were in their infancy. You could buy something like 10 turkey breasts for a few Deutsche marks back then and I force-fed myself.
“Literally, my body changed. I was just ripped when I arrived in Dax.”
In the meantime, sadly, Auguste had passed away. The Irishman arrived at the French club without a contract or even his contact.
The 21-year-old knew Dax was ‘en crise’ and bartered for his first professional deal.
“They presumed I did not speak French. I let them talk about the contract in front of me before I let them know I was worth more than they were discussing.
“I could just see them looking at me like I was a little bo***x,” he smiles.
“Anyway, I was the youngest forward starting in the French Division One that season (1998-99) and we got to the quarter-final of the competition.
“I had a magnificent year on the field and off it, surrounded by the culture. I lived on my own and got used to it.
“I became comfortable with being uncomfortable and that stayed with me. To this day, if I’m too comfortable, I feel I’m not growing, advancing.”
The next season, McCullen starred for Lansdowne in making it to the All-Ireland League final against St Mary’s College, gaining recognition as part of the 1999-00 AIL ‘Dream Team’.
Leinster coach Mike Ruddock brought the back-rower on a pre-season tour to Swansea.
“I had been offered contracts at Connacht, Ulster and by Declan Kidney in Munster. I turned them down because I wanted to play for Leinster.”
Education and advancement had always been primary pursuits before and after the game he had grown to love.
“Rugby wasn’t everything in my life,” he declares.
“I was doing an MBA at the Smurfit School of Business. In a way, I played when it was convenient to my plans.”
McCullen is fascinated by the transformation Leinster has undergone from his four years in 2001-2005 to where it now stands in European rugby.
The standout season was when he scored four tries in six Pool matches as Leinster reached the Heineken Cup semi-final against Perpignan in 2003.
It never really panned out as the bookmakers had it. They were unable to deliver on their promise.
“What I feel happened was it was like a business start-up. When you are jumping from one state to the next, it is always messy in the middle. And it was messy.
“It was about putting manners on the organisation. Matt Williams, Alan Gaffney, Aiden O’Connell, Jason Cowman, Dave Fagan, Ken Ging, Emmet Farrell, David McHugh, Willie Anderson and Steven Aboud put manners on a messy middle, bringing it closer to a proper professional mindset.
“Cheika brought that to another state by improving the mechanics of the club, while Joe Schmidt and, more recently, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster added the ‘humanics’, the culture, the mindset. I would have absolutely loved to have played in that environment.”
Overall, McCullen represented Leinster 57 times over four seasons before leaving town for Toulouse.
“I had a love-hate relationship with my rugby career. I was fine until I set myself expectations,” he states.
“When you do that, you are setting yourself up for not getting what you want.”
In 2004-05, McCullen had managed to put the devastation of injury in his rear-view mirror, finding rhythm and form.
“I came back from a broken arm, hospitalisation with concussion and other injuries, to play better than ever as a grafting number six. This was reflected by a Player of the Month award,” he said.
Despite his form, and being included in a November international squad, a disagreement between McCullen and Kidney saw the flanker’s game-time limited for the remainder of the season.
Watershed moments like this formed McCullen’s subsequent interest in mindset and how to use what he learned in rugby as vital tools in his work in organisation change.
It has even led to the publication of his first book ‘Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life’.
“As I say in the book, there are always assets in the ashes, crises unlock opportunities, if you are open to pursuing them.
McCullen left Leinster, making his way to then Kings of Europe, Toulouse.
“I arrived with no expectations. But, I started the season well and got picked at No 8, ahead of Isotolo Maka and Yannick Nyanga, a phenomenal player.
“I was awarded AIL number six of the year, while Nyanga was named world number six of the year,” he chuckles.
“In my head, I was having the conversation, you know, ‘When is this going to end?’ I couldn’t shake the mental shackles of the previous year. It felt too good to be true.”
This is when injury intervened, placing McCullen at the back of the queue again. He only wished he knew then what he knows now.
“Mindset had a huge part to play in it and I lacked self-belief at times,” he says.
“This setback inspired me to research mindset and, in particular, disruption and innovation. I believe that experience was the seed that grew into the book.
“While it was difficult in the moment, it later inspired much better experiences in my life.
“It inspires so much of what I do now. I run workshops on mindset within organisations, around culture and innovation.”
“Many people get stuck in their career or with an out-dated business model. It often stems from out-dated mental models.
“You cannot change business models until you first change mental models. To change what people do, you need to change how they think.”
McCullen’s book ‘Undisruptable’ is based on the foundational concept he calls “permanent reinvention”.
It starts from his personal experience on how he could have better dealt with the setbacks in his career, stemming from lessons of reinvention after retirement and applying those to business.
He holds that in a world of such rapid change, you need to develop new competencies and skills on a regular basis. This goes for careers as well as organisations.
“When I retired, I started out as an unpaid intern for Communicorp.
“A year later, I was leading a new business and had set up the digital media arm of the business, developing new revenue streams.
“I can thank rugby for that because it gave me the gift of creating a vision and just showing up everyday to do the hard graft to achieve it.
“That formula is so valuable to apply to anything in life. You set a vision so that you have something to strive towards.
“You expect setbacks and reframe them as milestones rather than millstones,” he adds.
“There is a whole load of stuff that happens in the middle – that messy middle – mishaps, mistakes, lessons, challenges. Sometimes it is about the capabilities you build on the way. I call it return-on-capability.
“I have been really lucky with rugby, the gifts it has given me, the friends, the mindset, the resilience to bounce back.”
It has also convinced McCullen that talent without discipline will leave you looking like ‘an octopus on roller-blades’.
“It is important for young players to realise talent is not enough. It is about the work ethic
“Some of the most talented players disappear. We’ve all seen it. There were so many players in Leinster, when I was there, way more talented than me.
“They didn’t have the discipline because they were talented. Sometimes talent can be a curse. Sometimes our successes can defeat us.
“They get there based on talent only to realise when they get to Leinster, ‘Oh crap, I haven’t built any discipline’ and they get exposed.
“The best players are those who have the talent to get them there and the discipline to keep them there.
“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard enough,” he says.
“That is why schoolboy heroes fall off the radar. I would much rather my hard way of getting there.
“It is a much more valuable mental model to have for the rest of your life,” he pushes.
“The reality is I knew I was an average athlete, an average player. I just worked really hard.
“There are three types of players in the world, the talented player, the disciplined player and the talented player with discipline.
“The goal of any coach is to make a talented player disciplined because if you have a team of disciplined, talented players you are going to go places.”
McCullen has taken all of the experiences from rugby and worked them into teaching tools for life.
“Whether it was rugby or study or work, it was all the same thing to me. They were just a manifestation of discipline.
“I see it the same way now whether it is doing ‘The Innovation Show’ or writing the book or developing courses for organisational change.
“Discipline is a gift that can be pointed at anything.”