Years of preparation. Attention to detail. Advanced training methods and dietary habits. Sports psychology. Data – data everywhere. And how did England's thoroughly professional rugby team do in the 2015 World Cup? Out in the group stages after losses to Wales and Australia.

It wasn't that they weren't trying. It wasn't that they weren't fit. England has more rugby players than any other country to choose from – many more than New Zealand, for example – so it can't really be a talent problem. The problem was the approach of the squad's leadership and the (consequent) attitude of the players.

Rugby World Cup 2015
'How did England's thoroughly professional rugby team do in the 2015 World Cup? Out in the group stages'Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

A bit of history (or "history"): when Rugby schoolboy William Webb Ellis first grabbed a football and ran with it in 1823 – the truth, sadly, is probably less romantic than this legend – he was not merely helping to invent a new game. He was improvising and showing what you might call creative disdain for the rules. It was an act of sporting enthusiasm. He was, in other words, playing like an amateur and not a professional.

Rugby union remained an amateur game, officially, until the 1990s. But even now, in the professional era, at its heart is adventure, risk-taking, imagination and flair. Or at least these things should be present. No one would accuse the England team of having displayed these qualities. Instead, they managed to embody many of the worst aspects of turgid professionalism: a safety first attitude, limited horizons, inhibition and defensiveness.

Clearly, the contrast between amateurism and professionalism is not as simple as this. We don't want amateur surgeons or pilots or lawyers. We expect professionals to be able to live up to and comply with high standards. Equally, amateurism has its drawbacks. Not everything is fun. Deadlines have to be met. Competence is a serious business. Amateurs should be kept out of certain situations.

And now sport is such big business, it is inevitable that professionalism rules the day. Only rich kids, or students, or people with highly accommodating employers can fit in the training and preparation required to take part in competitive sport at the highest level.

Spontaneity is key

All the same, at times professionalism can diminish rather than enhance performance. This is the warning to professionals of all kinds in the mediocre play – note the word "play" – of the England rugby team.

Sporting greats – Seve Ballesteros, Dennis Compton, Pele, Martina Navratilova – have always had a playful and spontaneous side. At work, too, bosses hope for creativity and innovation from their employees. Too many rules make for a dull workforce.

As management gurus Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee write in their latest book, Why Should Anyone Work Here?, in successful organisations "individuals have clarity about the rules, about which they generally agree. They also have discretion to deal with unique situations, while recognising that the expression of freedom within organisations rests on a necessary degree of constraint". Good professionals obey sensible and necessary rules but also know when they can and should break them.

Pele
'Seve Ballesteros, Dennis Compton, Pele and Martina Navratilova have always had a playful and spontaneous side'Getty

The amateur spirit has been unfairly maligned. It has much to offer. And professionalism is a somewhat ambiguous virtue. This was the point being made by Quentin Tarantino in his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. The gang of suited hoodlums constantly refer to their own sense of professionalism as a badge of honour. (But by "professionalism" the characters mean killing people and taking their money from them.)

When things go wrong, a character called Mr White (Harvey Keitel) berates his fellow criminals in these terms: "What you're supposed to do is act like a f*****g professional. A psychopath is not a professional. You can't work with a psychopath, 'cause ya don't know what those sick assholes are gonna do next."

The excessive language and behaviour reveal the flaws in this concept of professionalism. And it makes the wider point. Compare the verve, enthusiasm and commitment of the most successful teams in this Rugby World Cup with the crestfallen features of England's finest, 100% professional to a man. But they didn't even look as though they enjoyed playing rugby. There is a lesson for all of us there as we set off for another day in the office.


Stefan Stern is a business, management and politics writer. He writes for The Guardian and The Financial Times and is a visiting professor at Cass Business School.