What every leader can learn from the All Blacks

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Last weekend, the All Blacks showed us that they are indeed the leaders of the rugby world. They are formidable as individual athletes and as a team. Hailing from Ireland and living in Australia means both ‘my’ teams were favored to win the tournament at various stages, but the best team won out, again.

My friend Michael Henderson, is a corporate anthropologist and is renowned for studying tribal cultures, particularly high performing cultures. More than one famous rugby team has devoured his books over time. He also is a renowned keynote speaker. In a recent posting he talked about a key line in the Haka.

“As a leader if humility is beneath you, then leadership is beyond you”.

When I read that line it struck me as both utterly simple and absolutely profound in its meaning. Being humble – having a modest opinion of your own rank or importance, acting self–lessly has been demonstrated as being a critical component of effective leadership.

Studies cited in HBR illustrate that the demonstration of humility has a significant positive impact of increasing feelings and behaviours in their teams of inclusiveness, discretionary behaviour, team citizenship and innovation.  Research in the Administrative Science Quarterly found that managers who exhibit traits of humility—such as seeking feedback and focusing on the needs of others—resulted in better employee engagement and job performance.

Being humble can be demonstrated through listening, accepting feedback and admitting fault; empowering the learning and development of others; showing courage such as taking personal risk to reputation, for instance, for the greater good and holding others accountable.

So what are some of the practices the All Blacks have built up over time that any leader can learn from and more importantly replicate? Granted sports teams are different to corporate teams in many regards. They train most of the time and perform a minimal amount of their total available time. In the corporate sense, leaders do the opposite. But there are similarities worth noting.

  1. Set a vision and standards bigger than one individual

    Graeme Robson is a senior coach in High Performance Sport New Zealand.  In an article earlier this year he was quoted as saying “Firstly, the vision for any given team has to be clarified. The values and beliefs surrounding that team are then unilaterally agreed. In essence, this is the culture of the group. Only then were structures and strategies put in place to underpin this culture.

    If a player was late for training or went out for a few drinks, then these were considered to be isolated events, which there must have been good reasons for. The player was given the benefit of the doubt. If a pattern of events emerged, then a conversation was required and either the player was ejected or it was the culture and structures that required review at a high level”.

    At the Crusaders club in New Zealand, the notion of agreed and lived standards are orchestrated from the top down, but generated from the bottom up. It is the players who are charged with growing and enriching the vision. The players decide that simple things are important such as greeting everyone in the morning, shaking their hand to show that you acknowledge them and their contribution or being vulnerable enough to walk up to a new member of the squad and take him for a coffee rather than leaving him to integrate on his own.

    On the flip side understanding what is not acceptable, one observer noted the players avoided cliques forming, ignoring constructive criticism, or holding a negative attitude when not selected. I imagine not too different to issues any kind of team faces. But in this case the organisation and team members universally agreed to holding standards rather than black and white rules.

    How many times have leaders tolerated behaviours from a ‘star’ performer only to have the culture subside over time? The vision, culture and structure should manage the expected behaviours.

  1. The organisation is more important than the individual

    Conor McCarthy, a Gaelic football star from Ireland visited both the Crusaders and All Blacks training grounds to learn from a world class team environment. In an essay he wrote after his trip, he commented that the notion of “The team is more highly valued than any individual” is an easy soundbite for any website, corporate or sporting club. But again, these words are ‘lived out’ at the training bases he visited in early 2015. At that stage the Crusaders team had some of the current All Blacks players in their squad including Kieran Read and Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and Colin Slade. However, there are no differences drawn between any of these stellar names and the rest of the squad. According to McCarthy, the star players appeared to appreciate this more than anyone else.  “While these All Blacks players were to return to the squad two weeks later than the rest of the players for the 2015 season, their presence at training a week early and the voluntary gut-wrenching conditioning work they were doing adjacent to the first team squad was symbolic of the unity of effort and pursuit of excellence that was engendered in this squad”, McCarthy noted. A similar parallel can be drawn from the leadership at Manchester United under Ferguson when famous players were dropped as they thought they had become ‘bigger than the club”.

  1. Have a clear set of fully lived values that last over time

    In a recent article Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach, talked about the importance of old fashioned values.  He said All Blacks are overt in “living” the old school value of humility, which has been a value of the rugby squad for over 30 years.  When they win (as they nearly always do!) they have developed the ritual of inviting the other team into their rooms (onto their turf!). This is done not to gloat or big note but to connect and relate as real people with the other team. For aspiring teams in the recent World Cup like Georgia, Namibia or Samoa this was like being invited into the home of an idol. Time was taken to understand, discuss they game, demonstrate respect for the others who had toiled, tried and committed to the same game as the All Blacks.
    He explained that in the hype of the world cup they worked hard not to get caught up in the noise. “The first thing we had to acknowledge was to stop and enjoy each test. We do that sensibly but we acknowledge we have played another group of men who have tried to do what we have done. So we say, ‘would you guys like to come in? [to our changing room]’ “Not all teams accept that. Some do and South Africa are one that always comes in. When we are over there we go in. When I played, some of the best moments in rugby were with the guys who you have just gone 80 minutes with and you find out they are just like us. They are ordinary guys and you make lifelong friendships.”

    Leaders in the corporate sector often get caught up in doing a new set of mission, vision, vales statements but don’t stop to ponder why they are being ‘updated’. What needs to last over time is better for the business than doing an exercise to get better-worded posters.

    What needs to last over time is better for the business than doing an exercise to get better-worded posters.

  1. Learn from wherever possible

    According, to Arron Grow, of the School of Applied Leadership at the City University of Seattle and author of How to Not Suck as a Manager, humble leaders seek input from others to ensure they have all the facts and are making decisions that are in the best interest of the team. No one person has all the answers. If you think you do, then it’s probably time to reassess. In the All Blacks training programs reciprocal learning is highly valued. Guest coaches from other sports are regularly invited to visit in the hope and expectation that parallels could be drawn. For example, earlier in 2015 they spent some time ‘learning’ from Gaelic footballers to understand more about the overhead catch. They had seen the ‘Irish guys’ do this. It was felt that this skill was one area they were possibly deficient in, relative to the northern hemisphere teams.

    How many times have you as a leader invited guest leaders from other industries into your business to talk about their industry in an attempt to learn a nugget or skill?

    There is much to enjoy and admire about this world class team. Achieving two world cup titles back to back is build upon decades of investment, training, values, people and humility. But every leader can take one of the four ideas spelt out above and apply that tomorrow morning. None of these ideas are revolutionary, just consistently applied every day.

    That’s what makes the All Blacks world class (and the little bit of help from the Gaelic footballer with the overhead catch…!)