15 Leadership Lessons from the All Blacks

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  • December 5, 2016

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Better people make better All Blacks
—All Blacks’ rallying cry

I know almost nothing about rugby except that it is sort of like the American version of football (at least the ball looks similar and there is a lot of tackling going on) and that my slight frame would not last long out on the field. I recently came across a book called Legacy: 15 Lessons in Leadership by James Kerr, which shares how the world’s most successful sporting team, New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team, can help guide our own success in business and in life.

Who Are the All Blacks?

If you have the same amount of information about rugby that I did, you might be wondering who the All Blacks are and why they are important to the world of sports. The All Blacks are the New Zealand national rugby union team and they are, literally, the best rugby team ever to play. The team has won the last two Rugby World Cups, holds the record for the most consecutive wins (and has a 77 percent winning record) and is the only international team to have a winning record against every opponent.

While the team has always been extraordinary, a devastating loss to France in the quarterfinals of the 2004 World Cup forced the team to redefine itself and clearly lay out its principles. These principles took the All Blacks to the next level of the sport, bringing them to two World Cups and an 85 percent winning record. Kerr lays out these principles and how the team tries to execute on them every day.

15 Leadership Lesson from the All Blacks 

A rugby team has 15 players who work together toward a common purpose: to win. Below are the principles the All Blacks use to achieve this goal, but any team or company that wants to perform at the highest level can apply these rules.

  1. Character: Never be too big to do the small things that need to be done. There is a natural tendency in sports, and occasionally in business, for strong performers to feel like their way is the right way. In team sports, though, this strategy rarely works. Athletes and teams have to find the balance between total self-sacrifice to the team and relentless individual pursuit toward excellence. The All Blacks believe that character always triumphs over talent. They believe that when you focus on getting the culture right, the results will follow  a statement we agree with here at Learning House, as we try to live The Learning House Way every day. The All Blacks came up with a matrix of character traits for successful team members, including a high work rate, strong body movement, an unselfish attitude and a sacrificial mindset. The team focuses on humility and those who keep asking “how can we do this better?” One small example is after a game against Wales, the entire team swept up mud and gauze from the sheds. The All Blacks were not too good to clean up after themselves, because they know that character in the small things leads to character in the big things.
  2. Adapt: A continuous competitive advantage is a culture that is constantly adapting. After a chilling loss in 2003, the All Blacks head coach felt the team was dysfunctional and needed to transform its culture. This transformation had four stages: (1) make a case for change (in this case, the team’s performance was subpar on and off the field), (2) develop a compelling picture of the future (the All Blacks visualized themselves as creating a culture centered around personal and professional development that would produce the best results the All Blacks had ever seen), (3) build sustained capability for change (the team decided to eliminate players who would get in the way, and more importantly to build the capability of those who remained, centered around a dual management model where responsibility was handed over to the players so they had more skin in the game), and (4) create a credible plan to execute (which the team did by developing and deploying a self-reflective, self-adjusting plan that developed the technical, physical, logistical and psychological capabilities of their collective). By adapting how their team functioned, the All Blacks ushered in the most successful period of their history. This is as true in business as it is in sport — it’s no secret that organizational decline is inevitable unless leaders prepare for change even when standing at the pinnacle of success. Developing a continuous cycle of assessment and refinement means organizations are constantly evolving to meet, and conquer, the next big challenge.
  3. Purpose: Knowing why you are taking the actions you are creates belief and a sense of direction. The All Blacks’ official slogan is to unite and inspire New Zealand. Less officially, they want to add to their legacy by leaving the jersey in a better place. The Maori say “The person with a narrow vision sees a narrow horizon. The person with a wide vision sees a wide horizon.” In 2004, when everything seemed to be falling apart for the All Blacks after their World Cup loss to France, they did a complete overhaul of their culture. By their nature, companies are profit maximizing (externally motivated), but so many of the great companies are also purpose maximizing (intrinsically motivating). For example, Disney obviously wants to make money, but its vision is “We create happiness.” That’s an intrinsic motivation that guides all of Disney’s decisions. One of my favorite quotes is Nietzsche’s “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Companies and people (and sports teams) who know their why are more likely to achieve their goals.
  4. Responsibility: Leaders create leaders by passing responsibility and creating ownership, accountability and trust in their teams. The All Blacks believe the rugby field is volatile, complex and ambiguous, which means that a top-down command isn’t nimble enough to achieve success. Instead, leaders provide goals, resources and a time frame, and individual team members can then pursue those goals how they see fit. This means everyone is a leader on the field, but all are working together toward a common goal. Companies where everyone is empowered to take responsibility have a more flexible, invested workforce, just as the All Blacks have a more flexible, committed team.
  5. Learn: Create a learning environment. Leaders are teachers. Excellence is a process of incremental improvement. By finding the 100 things that can be done 1 percent better, leaders create cumulative and incremental advantage, and organizations see an upswing in performance and results. In creating a coherent learning environment, it pays both to eliminate unhelpful elements and introduce insightful and inspiring influences.
  6. Whanau: Be a team 24/7. Whanau is a Maori word that means to be born or to give birth and refers to the relationships among extended family, parents, grandparents, the family built of friends and teammates. A big part of the All Blacks culture is setting high standards and putting measures in place for peer to peer enforcement. Successful teams are those where everyone works hard for each other, submerging individual ego for the greater cause.
  7. Expectations: Embrace expectations. There is a saying “aim for the highest cloud so that if you miss it, you will hit a lofty mountain.” Successful leaders have high internal benchmarks; in the All Blacks case, it was to be the best rugby team in history. These high expectations mean failure is not an option; instead, the aversion to the failure of not reaching the goal is much stronger than the desire to achieve the goal. I have done this several times in my life and it works. Every time I set a big goal for myself, I am scared. Every time I am scared, I channel those emotions and get to work.
  8. Preparation: Train to win. Practice under pressure. The All Blacks practice with intensity in a methodology they call Train to Win. The idea is to throw all sorts of problems and random situations at the team members during practice, which prepares them for anything on the field. It develops what they call “unconscious competence,” which makes their performance automatic and keeps them in the “flow.” Mastery in anything is achieved by practice. Practice is enhanced by intensity. Research shows that both our body and brains respond positively to accelerated intense learning. Anyone who watches sports regularly marvels at how athletes can stay so calm under the most intense situations. They are prepared for the moment, and we don’t get to see the thousands of hours in preparation that get them ready for that one moment.
  9. Pressure: Keep a “blue head” and control your attention. The author defines having a “red head” as being tight, inhibited, results oriented, aggressive, anxious and over-compensating, whereas he defines a “blue head” as being loose, expressive, in the moment, calm, clear, accurate and on task. When people are in the red, they are generally in the “dark” and feel panic. When people are in the blue, they are generally in the “light” and feel in control. The All Blacks work really hard to stay in the blue. They use mantras to navigate through high-pressure situations and return to the moment so they can have a clear mind and go forward with clear thought.
  10. Authenticity: Know thyself. Great leaders remain true to their deepest values. For the All Blacks, authenticity begins with honesty and integrity. They define integrity as having one’s purpose, values and actions all in alignment. In recognizing our deepest values, we can understand what kind of leader we are and what kind of life we wish to live. With accuracy in our actions, less slippage occurs between thought and deed. Trust and respect are end results within the team when each individual is living this kind of authenticity.
  11. Sacrifice: Find something you would die for and give your life to it. The All Blacks are known for giving everything to the team. They believe that champions do extra. There is an expression “there are no crowds lining the extra mile.” All masters of their craft know and live this, as do the All Blacks. It is scary to think that someone takes any sport this seriously, but the fact is that to be an All Black, they truly are giving everything they’ve got and then some. Countless injuries, from concussions to broken bones to lacerations, are commonplace among the All Blacks, but this is a small price to pay for them to wear the All Blacks jersey.
  12. Language: Invent a language. Sing your own world into existence. Language is extremely powerful. Words start revolutions. All elite teams and companies have compressed thinking in mottoes and metaphors, such as Just Do it, Think Differently, Semper Fi. At one point when competing in Europe, an All Blacks coach came up with the nickname the Black Plague. It stuck with the media because it was a great metaphor of the devastating and tragic image of the Black Plague that swept through Europe in the 14th century. It conjured up images of the All Blacks smothering and destroying the opposition. Sean Fitzpatrick, a former rugby union player who represented New Zealand, wrote the black book of aphorisms for All Black culture. Examples such as “No one is bigger than the team,” “Leave the jersey in a better place” and “It’s not enough to be good. It’s about being great” are recounted by every player and set a common language for the team.
  13. Ritual: Ritualize to actualize and create a culture. Rituals can make the intangible real. There is possibly nothing so unique and intimidating than the All Blacks haka  a Maori challenge or posture dance  that the team performs before each match. I highly recommend you watch this 3-minute video. A great example in business is Wal-Mart’s Saturday morning meetings where the company ritualized knowledge sharing. By inculcating rituals into culture, leaders can model the essential spirit capturing it for future generations. As the old saying goes, “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.”
  14. Whakapapa: Be a good ancestor. Plant trees you’ll never see. Whakapapa is a Maori expression that signifies the interdependence of everything. One of the overarching responsibilities of being an All Black is to “leave the jersey in a better place.” This means to work incrementally toward a better collective outcome and to be a custodian of the future. For the All Blacks as well as other great organizations, the legacy is more intimidating than the opposition. Seeing this bigger picture really keeps things in perspective. All of a sudden, it’s not about you at all. The All Blacks have an expression, “You don’t own the jersey, you are just the body in the jersey.” This creates reverence and a deep commitment to a much larger purpose that for the All Blacks dates back over a century.
  15. Legacy: Write your legacy. This is your time. Whakapapa and legacy are very much intertwined. A new All Blacks team member is told from the very beginning that not only is this about respecting the jersey and all the tradition, but it’s also about writing a new legacy for the All Blacks. In the last 10 years, the team changed the haka to reflect a more diverse set of teammates of different backgrounds. They made it their own. They created their own legacy. I have mentioned before on this blog that one of my favorite quotes from a movie is from Gladiator. In it, the main protagonist, General Maximus (played by Russell Crowe) says, “Brothers: what we do in life echoes in eternity.” The All Blacks get this, and for the short time that the sun is shining on them, they are making a new legacy for the team.

This is by far the longest I have spent researching and writing a blog post. I am enraptured by the All Blacks’ story and found the book packed with nuggets of highly useful information and strategies for both life and running a business. If you want to be the best, you have to learn from the best. Indubitably, the All Blacks are the best.

About Todd Zipper

President & Chief Executive Officer

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