A remarkable tale of leadership
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A remarkable tale of leadership

October 30, 2015

By Tony Vidler

A remarkable story is unfolding in rugby union, and there are lessons for all business leaders in it. The Australians play the reigning world champion New Zealanders in the Rugby World Cup final, and regardless of whether the Australians win or lose this weekend the transformation in culture and leadership that delivered them the opportunity to be in the final is worth looking at.

The New Zealand All Blacks are the undisputed heavyweights of world rugby, with an unparalleled record of success for more than 100 years, winning over 76% of their test matches against all other nations in that time.  Quite simply, they are the most successful sports team of all time.  And they repeat their success year after year after year, relentlessly.  They head into this world championship decider as the favourites, as usual.

Just on a year ago the Australian Rugby Union changed their coach. At the time Australia was competitive internationally, being ranked about 6th best in the world perhaps. The team had internal divisions, poorly disciplined players in the squad, and disharmony in its ranks.

A year later they are transformed into an energetic, disciplined, focussed team that is playing beautifully.  They have a wonderful mix of elan and attacking flair, and gritty “no surrender” defence.  They are the one team in the world that just might give the mighty New Zealanders a bloody nose. But how did they transform, and what can we learn from it?

There is no doubt that the new coach brought strong leadership, and that he transformed the culture of the team.  It is the type of leadership, and how the culture was transformed that is most interesting for businesses though.

Micheal Cheika’s leadership centres upon setting clear expectations and direction for his team members, and then trusting them to be grown-ups who can do their jobs well.  By all accounts that clarity of direction is not rooted in a grand vision and large aspirational goals that merely motivate people, but in much smaller goals that each individual can self-manage and focus upon.  He treats each game – or each week – as a new experience, and only talks about the next task. The next game.  He coaches his players to concentrate on their part and tasks that matter – not the bigger grander plan.  They then  focus on their own skills and role.

Perhaps most importantly he empowers and trusts his people to perform as professionals.  No curfews, no rules around whether they can have a drink or not….none of the restrictive micro-managing that is prevalent in professional sport. He trusts his people to do what they know is right – and they respond accordingly.  They step up.

The cultural change is rooted in values.  The often apparent arrogance of the past within the team has disappeared.  Genuine humility prevails, and genuine respect for team mates and opposition is apparent.  Confidence and support for each other within the team is obvious in a hundred different ways.  Their self-belief in their collective ability has swamped the egotistical star element that existed previously.

It is truly a remarkable transformation in such a short time.  As an avid fan I have watched closely along the way, and key steps for me that I think every business could learn from are:

  • incumbents were given clarity about the style and culture that were to be built
  • incumbents were given precise roles, and understood how those roles fitted into the business.
  • incumbents were given an opportunity to grow and change
  • incumbents were given support, coaching and further skills
  • the few who didn’t embrace were replaced. Some selective culling of some very fine athletes was done.
  • some ruthless decisions were made: good, loyal and fabulous team men who didn’t feature in long term planning were moved out.
  • key objectives and style were consistently reinforced publicly, and they managed the expectations of their target market (the fans)
  • they adopted an attitude of having to “constantly earn” their place in their target markets mind (the fans), on an ongoing basis.
  • they experimented and innovated.  Sometimes it didn’t go so well – but they learned from it. Then refined it, and got better.
  • they put everything they had into every contest.  There is nothing half-hearted about it; when it is time to go to work they get stuck into working.
  • there is a multitude of leaders within the unit.  Leadership is not the responsibility of a single person, but everyone within the team takes leadership roles and responsibilities for differing aspects of the performance.  Leaders have been encouraged, developed, and embraced
  • individuality is embraced, but doesn’t dominate.  The coach likes to describe it as “diversity has been accepted” – the reality is that it isn’t about diversity, it is simply about everyone being accepted as the individual they are and recognising that there is no “right” or “wrong” sort of human.  Everyone can introduce knowledge, skills and strengths and different perspectives – but no individual is superior to the team.
  • ….and finally, one that I think is a really big one: the boss (the coach) protects and promotes his people.  He shields them sometimes when they need a break, and deflects credit and praise to the players who were out there in the battle. When it doesn’t go so well though he accepts full responsibility.

The result is a culture of high trust and camaraderie, where people are encouraged to attempt excellence.  Falling short occasionally is accepted, but lacking effort is not.  Individual responsibility and accountability to team mates is more important than hierarchy.  Individuality is encouraged and embraced, but must respect the the needs of the group as a whole.

And the leader stays focussed on 3 core things:

  1.  clarifying the strategy
  2. creating and building the culture, and,
  3. creating more leaders

You may also find this post useful: Create the right culture for lasting success 

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Comments (6)

  • Good one TV – lessons for all of us there.

    David Whyte
  • Hi Tony
    I definitely think this is one of your better pieces, I really enjoyed it. I’d like to print it off and give it to one of my clients to distribute to all his team, as it speaks of exactly what I’ve been trying to tell them, but you’ve told it in a manner that I think they will be able to relate to.
    John Strange

    John Strange
  • Leave a Reply