Leadership Lessons from the All Blacks

Over the years, the All Blacks have become the most feared opponents. The men, wearing black jerseys with the silver fern and delivering the haka, have a psychological edge on the opposition whenever they stepped onto the field and it starts with the captain, the leader.

Captains like George Nepia, Colin Meads, Waka Nathan, Wilson Whineray, Graham Mourie, Andrew Mehrtens and Tana Umaga, in the All Blacks hall of fame, are outstanding individuals and outstanding leaders. Another great captain in the same mould is current leader and flanker Richie McCaw, who many regard as the greatest rugby player of all time.

His debut for New Zealand was against Ireland in 2001, aged just 20, and despite his first touch of the ball resulting in a knock-on, he was awarded Man of the Match. He was subsequently selected as New Zealand's first choice openside flanker for the 2003 World Cup and became a regular selection, only missing a few games due to reoccurring concussions.

In 2006 he was appointed All Blacks captain. After defeat in the 2007 World Cup quarter-finals, 18-20 versus France, his captaincy came under criticism. It was New Zealand's earliest exit from a World Cup. An emotional McCaw could not hide his disappointment at the after-match press conference: "If I knew the answers we would have sorted it out. We will be thinking about it for a long time".

He learned from his mistakes and during the 2011 World Cup, McCaw inspired his teammates, and the nation, playing on virtually one leg after suffering a debilitating ankle injury. On 23 October 2011, McCaw led his team to the World Champions title, beating France 8–7 in the final.

In 2012, after the win against South Africa, McCaw became the first player to win 100 tests – while having only lost 12 games, a staggering 89% winning ratio - he has been on the winning side in 9 out of every 10 tests he has played. He’s the most capped All Blacks captain.

McCaw’s record is astounding. His leadership is unquestionable. His playing ability is envied and judged to be the epitome of an openside flanker. McCaw is always there in the mix, leading by being there right on the shoulder of a teammate in the thick of the action.

Winning leaders in sports teams offer valuable insights into the necessary qualities for leading business teams. The frenetic and unrelenting pace of competitive sport demands the same discipline, clarity and focus. Let’s consider four of McCaw’s key attributes that we can consider in today’s commercial environment:

1. Mental strength & emotional discipline: thinking correctly under pressure The leader needs to remain focused and alert whilst under pressure, so he makes the right decisions at the right time. This requires mental fortitude.

Some decisions will not be clear-cut. It is during critical situations that your team will look to you for guidance. As a leader, it’s important to be lucid. Don’t immediately choose the first or easiest possibility, and be emotionally disciplined. Fire in the belly, but ice in the brain is a useful maxim here.

Emotional discipline is important. A loss of emotional control will affect timing, co-ordination and the ability to read a situation. Conviction-based decision making is key. A good plan, executed with passion now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

2. A leader creates individuals and defines the team A management team should function as one. The leader ensures the right people are in the right seats on the bus.

Leading the charge from the front is one aspect of leadership, but success is ultimately down to teamwork, so it is essential to delegate – don’t hog the remote control! If you don’t learn to trust your team with your vision, you might never progress. It’s a fine balance, but one that will have a huge impact on the productivity of your business.

A leader should be visible to the management team. It enables you to always know what is going on and it lets everyone know that you are around, involved, ready to join in and help if needed.

The leader also creates the team spirit, and effective working relationships. A team can only work as one in an environment free from tensions. Even the greatest leader cannot lead in a vacuum. A leader takes the time to know his management team individually, on a personal level to establish rapport.

3. Positive mindset and winning attitude: lead by example If you lose that major client, or your cashflow dries up, guiding your team through the crisis is important. Morale is linked to success and it’s the leader’s job to show positive energy and attitude, especially when times are tough. A leader is a dealer in hope.

There may be days where the future looks rough and things aren’t going to plan. Part of your job as a leader is to put out fires, assure everyone that setbacks are natural and get focus on the bigger picture. By staying calm and confident, you will help keep the team feeling the same, your team will take cues from you.

4. Humility, honesty & integrity It’s vital you hold an ethical plane as a leader, its essential you raise the bar and display integrity, sincerity and candour in all your actions.

Be accountable based on your values, and don’t allow compromise or mediocrity. The core of integrity is truthfulness. Integrity requires that you always tell the truth, to all people, in every situation. A fish rots from the head, so does an organisation. A true leader becomes a leader by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.

Great leaders are decisive but also humble. Humility means that you have the self-confidence and self-awareness to be willing to admit you could be wrong and learn from others, that you recognise you may not have all the answers. Humility gets results. You learn how to listen. Your pride doesn’t get in the way.

Effective leadership is all about the four qualities highlighted. It’s not about making speeches or being liked, the key is influence, not authority. A great leader’s courage to fulfil his vision comes from passion, not position. A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. As McCaw shows, their responsibility is getting all the players playing for the name on the badge on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back.