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Leadership lessons for businesses from the All Blacks

January 2024

By Corrado Varoli, CEO and Founding Partners of G5 Partners and Levindo Santos, Senior Partner at G5 Partners. 

 

Regardless of the modality, we can always extract and transfer precious lessons from sports to everyday life. And, when it comes to the business world, there is even more room for sports analogies. Building a company from scratch is a complex task. Leading people so they act in an organized, efficient and harmonious way, day after day, to achieve collective goals is not trivial, either. Just like in sports, the successful management of a company requires discipline and dedication, in addition to constantly challenging the individuals involved to perform at the top of their personal capabilities. Among team sports, rugby is one that attracts a lot of attention due to the countless examples it offers. Since it is still very unknown in Brazil, this sport does not give a positive first impression. With all the falls and pushes, the sport seems too brutal to contain any teachings, let alone a special message. But this is just a superficial perception. What makes this sport so special is that it is permeated by a code of ethics based on five main values, all of which are loyally followed by players and summarized in the acronym DRIPS: Discipline, Respect, Integrity, Passion and Solidarity. Rugby is a team sport with intense physical contact, which makes it quite rough and virile. Even so, unfair attitudes are rare. A match has 15 players on each side trying to catch an oval-shaped ball (a rugby) to take it to their opponent’s goal line. A play is always rough, but it is executed according to the rules and the opponent will always be treated with respect. 

As an unquestionable example of discipline and respect for the rules, the referee’s word always prevails. Every decision the referee makes is explained to the captains of both teams and, in the process, also becomes known to the public. Even as referees are naturally prone to errors, no player or member of the coaching staff will approach them to complain or question their integrity. And this is one of the most important aspects of rugby’s cultural pillars. Another striking characteristic of this sport is the appreciation for collective and supportive efforts, in which a play or match is rarely decided by a single athlete. Since passes are only made backwards or to the side, only an effectively collective and organized effort will allow a team to achieve its goals. Although the definition of success in rugby is the same in any other sport (to win!), a victory is worthless if it is not achieved with fair play. Therefore, a rugby team will never play completely closed or on the defense, or with players faking fouls or injuries. No matter how elastic a match may be, the leading and losing team will always value every opportunity to score points. This is a matter of respect, not only for the public but also for the opponent. At the end of the day, no matter how tough the match was, both teams will always stand in brotherhood. Rivalries and possible disagreements stay on the field as a match only lasts 80 minutes, but the values of this sport must always be put into practice – for life. 

Rugby, New Zealand and the path to success 

Rugby is the national sport of New Zealand, a small island country in Oceania with 5 million inhabitants and formed by two main land masses (called the North Island and the South Island). For almost 140 years, rugby has been a national passion and a defining influence on the life and culture of New Zealanders, helping shape a nation that is proud, disciplined, innovative and determined to leave an imprint on the world. The All Blacks national rugby team is known as one of the most respected opponents in the rugby world. Watching them on the field, in their black uniforms with silver fern leaves, invariably strikes pride in the hearts of New Zealanders and fear in their opponents. In the book ‘Legacy – What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life’ (editor Constable, London, 2013), the author James Kerr analyzes the All Blacks’ trajectory and how it became the team with the highest winning ratio among all team sports on the planet. What is the secret to its success? How do players deal with pressure? How do they train to reach their highest potential? How do they find motivation, year after year, to renew themselves and stay on top? To answer these and other questions, Kerr spent five weeks with the All Blacks during the preparations for the 2010 World Cup and discovered that their success had everything to do with the team’s culture and the concepts and values it employs every day. Kerr also realized that many of the management methods adopted by the team provide an inspiring and effective model for leaders in other fields. There are a total of 15 main reflections made by James Kerr, among which we highlight: 

Humility: Creating and maintaining a collective culture that combines humility and pride is fundamental. For the All Blacks, players remain in the dressing room after each match to reflect and discuss the game, aiming to understand what can be improved. Then, the veterans set an example by leading the locker room cleaning ritual. The team emphasizes that no one should ever feel as though they are too important to do the “smaller jobs”. 

Adaptation: The decline of any company seems inevitable unless its leaders constantly prepare their team for change — and this should ideally be done when they are at the top of their game. For the All Blacks, the culture that combines veterans and youth allows the team to constantly renew their talents, in a process that transfers responsibilities, knowledge and the collective legacy. 

Responsibility: Leaders create a sense of ownership, autonomy and initiative among their subordinates. Leaders do not create followers; Leaders create leaders. For the All Blacks, sharing responsibilities and letting everyone gain awareness of their contribution to collective success is an important cultural trait and a key factor for their success. 

Collective: For the All Blacks, what matters is the collective effort. No one is bigger than the team. The team’s fundamental attribute is that each player must show ethical behavior and respect for its values. The players themselves are responsible for eliminating any sign of destructive individualism that could jeopardize the harmony of the collective culture. Although the team’s captain is the legitimate leader of the group, the All Blacks work under the “leadership group” concept, in which everyone has the duty to try to occupy their own space and lead by example. 

Expectations: The All Blacks are encouraged to set the most challenging performance goals. Immediately after any defeat, players are challenged to reflect on how they are feeling at that moment and the importance of always remembering that feeling in the future, since it’s in “remembering the pain of defeat” that the All Blacks find the encouragement to pursue victory, every single time. 

Preparation: For the All Blacks, it is essential to train with intensity in search of excellence and to develop a winning mentality that is prepared to respond appropriately in times of pressure. In fact, the All Blacks’ training sessions are probably even more intense and exhausting than the matches played against opponents. 

Tradition: All great organizations are founded and perpetuated through compelling stories, which helps people understand their values and what they stand for. Strong cultures need a system of significance that is understood by everyone; a language that unites people. For the All Blacks, every rookie player receives a book, the “All Black Book”, when he joins the team. The book is constructed from aphorisms that gather the values and wisdom accumulated throughout the team’s history. An important set of attributes that helps solidify the pride of belonging and participating in this tradition. 

Ritual: No other international sports team has a pre-game ritual as powerful as the famous All Black haka, of Maori origin. Since the first performance of the traditional “Ka mate, Ka mate”, in 1888, the haka has played a critical role in the physical and mental preparation of the All Blacks team. Through this ritual, players have the opportunity to reflect, narrate and reinforce their collective story and, ultimately, connect with their traditions. 

In New Zealand, schools, universities and grassroots clubs work together to train rugby athletes. The common dream among them, for both children and young people, is to become an All Black. Discipline in training and the legacy of the black uniform inspire millions of young people. For them, being an All Black means acting with integrity in all aspects. The discipline and legacy of the All Blacks exemplifies the best of what this sport has to offer. Adding the values of rugby with the All Blacks’ culture of excellence, and its permanent ritual of connection with Maori ancestors, results in a team that is practically undefeatable. It is no surprise that New Zealand recognizes itself as the land of rugby and that this small and isolated country has, over the years, become one of the most developed societies on the planet. 

G5 Partners and the All Blacks  

Although we are geographically very distant from the All Blacks and do not use an oval ball in our activities, there are several aspects in rugby, in particular on how the All Blacks function, that coincide with G5 Partners’ culture and way of being: 

  1. We are a relatively small organization operating in a giant industry; 
  1. Our ethical values are clear and non-negotiable; 
  1. We strive for excellence and always dedicate ourselves to any task; 
  1. We have a strong group of leaders and foster a leading by example culture, with excellence and dedicating ourselves diligently to any task;  
  1. Our culture is founded on the pillars of humility and respect for others;  
  1. G5 Partners, like the All Blacks, is driven by long-term success;  
  1. We believe that collective result is more important than individual success; and  
  1. We believe it is our obligation to help G5 Partners constantly evolve, preparing it to be conducted by new generations of leaders.  

 

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