Leadership lessons from coach of New Zealand All Blacks

Wed Oct 10 2016 Michael McQueen

The New Zealand All Blacks are by all measures legendary. With a rich heritage dating back to 1903, this iconic Rugby team boasts a staggering 77% test match winning record and are statistically the best team to have ever played the game.

While they may be known worldwide for their customary Haka – a traditional Māori challenge dance – the All Blacks are something of an institution back home in NZ.

Speaking at a conference in Auckland recently, I was privileged to share the stage with the current All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen (pictured right). Chatting with Steve backstage about the success his team has enjoyed now for so long, I curiously asked him “how do you keep the team hungry and at the top of their game?”

His answer was profound and is one that any leader would do well to heed of:

“Our constant challenge is to ward off complacency’, he said, ‘but I’ve always been of the view that you shouldn’t have to lose to learn.”

He went on to describe that there are a series of ‘pillars’ or principles he and the team leadership use to avoid the insidious creep of complacency and arrogance that can so often come with success.

These pillars included:

1. Challenge – For many of the team, their competitive temperament is one of the best things to harness, Steve said. Put simply, the goal or vision of what lies ahead needs to be more alluring than what currently is. He said that the vision he often lays out for the players is that the All Blacks ought to aim for nothing less than to be most dominant team in history of Rugby. This sort of inspiring, challenging and aspirational vision is a key part of never becoming content with the status quo.

2. Heritage – This second pillar for staving off complacency was one that surprised me. Steve said that the second way he ensures the players remain at their best is to remind them of the weight of heritage that they carry as All Blacks. “I have to remind them that they don’t own the jersey – they are only passing through and the All Blacks legacy is one they have a responsibility to live up to” he said.

This sense of identity linked to heritage also shapes how the players behave and view themselves in very practical ways too. Although every All Black is, in their own right, revered and adored by a countless multitude, remembering that they are simply ambassadors of a heritage that will outlive them as players gives powerful perspective. It also implores players to act more honourably than they perhaps otherwise would (recent indiscretions aside). This perhaps explains why the All Blacks have a hard-earned reputation for being gentleman wherever they travel in the world: locker rooms are always left clean and tidy and interactions with fans always gracious and warm.

3. Inconvenient facts – This third pillar for avoiding complacency was to willingly face what Steve called inconvenient facts – the hard conversations that don’t allow shifting of blame, hiding from responsibility or accepting second best.

When I asked what this looked like for the team, he gave the example of a recent conversation he’d had with a player who was celebrating a successful maneuver in a recent game. Steve challenged the player suggesting that the success was not as much due to his skill as a player but the lack of skill in the opponent. While the feedback may have seemed harsh, it was an inconvenient fact that needed to be faced if the player were to avoid being lulled into a false sense of superiority (and complacency).

I wonder what leadership lessons you can take from the All Blacks? What is the challenge that will keep you and your organization hungry? What is the sense of responsibility that will bring out your team’s best? And what inconvenient facts need to be faced?

Remember, if you and your organization are riding high right now, you don’t have to lose to learn. What tremendous wisdom we’d all do well to keep front of mind.