What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life
I recently read James Kerr’s book ‘Legacy’ which outlines 15 lessons for today’s business leaders from studying the world’s most successful sports team in history – The All Blacks. What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life presents an opportunity to understand how the All Blacks nurture peak performance and also guides the sustainment of peak performance cultures.
The 15 lessons as identified by Kerr include:
- Character – let someone else praise your virtues. Character includes humility and personal-discipline with, for example, world-class athletes ‘sweeping the sheds’ because you ‘do the job properly, so no one else has to’ and you are ‘never too big to do the small things that need to be done’. Kerr emphasises that the All Blacks’ ‘competitive advantage…is their ability to manage their culture and central narrative by attaching the players’ personal meaning to a higher purpose’. In other words, service before self while leaving your organisation in a better place.
- Adapt – when you’re on top of your game, change your game. This idea is otherwise known as the Sigmoid Curve. Kerr emphasises opportunities for change and adaptation including: exit bad relationships; recruit new talent; alter tactics; and, reassess strategy.
- Purpose – if you want higher performance, begin with a higher purpose. The purpose of the All Blacks is to ‘unite and inspire New Zealand’ pragmatically achieved as ‘better people make better All Blacks’. Purpose includes ‘personal meaning’ where people belong to a ‘cause greater and more enduring than themselves’ and individual and organisational ‘values and beliefs align’. For example, purpose in the Proteas South African Cricket team is Ubuntu, meaning ‘the essence of being human’, we are interconnected ‘we can’t exist as a human being in isolation’ and our ‘actions affect everyone, not just ourselves’.
- Responsibility – leaders create leaders. This chapter examines mission command defining goals, resources and timeframes. All Black application of mission command includes: devolving leadership; developing people and learning; structuring programs based on shared responsibilities; preparing people to remain clear and accurate decision makers under pressure; and, connecting people through techniques, rituals and language.
- Learn – leaders are teachers. Learning emphasises that excellent teams ‘don’t believe in excellence, only in constant improvement and constant change’. For the All Blacks this means a ‘daily map of self-improvement’ and an ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ articulated as: ‘Things I Do Today’. Marginal gains can be ‘technical, physical, practical, operational or psychological’ – but these gains must become the organisation’s ‘central operating principle’.
- Whanau – follow the spearhead. Whanau means to ‘be born’ or ’give birth’ and is symbolised in Maori mythology by a spearhead – ‘a spearhead has three tips, but to work properly all force must move in one direction’. In other words, individuals are ‘free to choose the course they take, but the spearhead is most effective if we work together’. For the All Blacks ‘no one is bigger than the team’ and despite individual brilliance ‘one selfish mindset will infect a collective culture’.
- Expectations – let us prepare ourselves for the fray. When we lose ‘make a mental note of how you feel [at the moment of loss] and make sure you never feel that way again’. Building our own momentum to achieve occurs, for example, through keeping notes documenting successes and failures, including: affirmations; mantras; notes-to-self; reminders; exhortations; expectations; anchors; and, priming words. Retain humility after each success through preparing always to start again today!
- Preparation – practice under pressure with intensity and clarity. Focus on technique, increase intensity and add pressure – then reduce pressure, intensity and refocus on technique. Training should be harder than the game. In training ‘throw problems and unexpected events at people, forcing them to solve the problems’. Train for intensity, ‘don’t stop for mistakes’ but maintain momentum and seek to retain advantage. Quoting Muhammad Ali: ‘the fight is won or lost, far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road’. Seek not a ‘Red Head’ – ‘heated, overwhelmed, intense’ – but remain on task with a ‘Blue Head’ – with ‘clarity, situational awareness, accurate analysis and good decision-making under pressure’.
- Pressure – control your attention through clear thought, clear talk, clear task. The first stage of learning is silence, the second stage is listening. Pressure is ‘expectation, scrutiny and consequence – under pressure you are either diverted or on track’. If you are diverted ‘you’re overwhelmed’. If you are on track ‘you are clear, you adapt and you overcome’. Pressure typically is determined by: high stakes; high stimulus; trauma; disputes; conflict; deadlines; urgency; or distraction. Ease pressure through a ‘strong linguistic chain of events’ maintaining a ‘rule of three’ ideas to anchor thinking, such as: TQB – top-quality ball; aviate, navigate, communicate; assess, adjust, act; or, the Australian Army’s courage, initiative, respect and teamwork.
- Authenticity – know thyself, a person who can be taken at their word. Leaders must think: Why are you here? What’s your purpose? How do I use my time here? Integrity is the ‘accuracy of our actions’ meaning ‘when we say something will happen, it actually does happen’. Every morning ‘write a list of things that need to be done’ and then ‘do them’. This means that ‘others can count on us to deliver’ and ‘we can count on ourselves’.
- Sacrifice – find something you would die for and give your life to it. Leaders consider two questions: what do they offer the team? what would they sacrifice? Reflecting this thinking, Professor Sandra Harding, Vice Chancellor, James Cook University emphasises that leaders are both the best-behaved people in their organisation and the key difference in their organisation. The All Blacks’ mantra is based on personal exertion, ‘extra, discretionary effort and sacrifice…to do something extraordinary’, emphasising that ‘champions do extra’.
- Language – leaders seek knowledge and communication. Core to the All Blacks’ language are three words: humility; excellence; and respect. Humility as a central All Blacks’ value ‘grounds the team, creates respect, encourages curiosity and generates bonds that sustains [the team] in the heat of battle’.
- Ritual – create a culture. Culture ‘continually grows and changes’, requiring constant renewal and reinterpretation. All Black rituals, from first cap induction ceremonies, to the haka and team hierarchies are a ‘framework that holds the [All Black] belief system in place’ and ‘reconnects the All Blacks to their fundamental purpose’. All Black rituals connect the personal stories of players to the team. Ultimately, rituals prove the aphorism of ‘tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand’.
- Whakapapa – plant trees you’ll never see. Whakapapa is our genealogy – ‘our place in the ascending order of all living things’. Whakapapa signifies the team’s mindset, the ‘interdependence of everything – ancestry, spirituality, history, mythology and mana’. Whakapapa encourages the team to ‘leave the All Black jersey in a better place’ noting that ‘our first responsibility is to be a good ancestor’. On leaving the world in a better place, George Bernard Shaw wrote that life is a ‘splendid torch’ which we have ‘hold of for the moment…to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations’. Kerr describes our contribution to the world as our ‘social footprint’ – the ‘impact our life has – or can have – on other lives’.
- Legacy – write your legacy. Each newly selected All Black receives a book. The book details All Black ‘principles, heroes, values, standards, code of honour, ethos and character of the team’. The remainder of the pages are blank – ‘waiting to be filled’. The pages are waiting for future All Blacks to make their mark, their contribution and to leave their legacy.