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Several weeks ago the world’s most successful sports team reached yet another unprecedented level of achievement. The New Zealand men’s rugby team – known simply as the ‘All Blacks’ – became the first team to win back-to-back world championships while securing their record third title.
I routinely meet coaches as well as leaders outside of sport who want to learn how the All Blacks create and sustain their remarkable culture of excellence. The recent surge in interest about the All Blacks can also be attributed to the publication of several research articles and a best-selling book on their leadership approach.
I too have long been interested in learning how the All Blacks coaches lead the world’s most decorated sports team. In early December I was blessed with the good fortune of learning firsthand from the head coaches of the last two world cup championship teams, Sir Graham Henry (2011) and Steve Hansen (2015). All three of us were invited to speak at the national coaching conference in New Zealand. Coach Henry and Coach Hansen both were interviewed at the event, and I also spoke directly with coach Hansen about his coaching philosophy and the All Blacks leadership style. Here is what I learned.
There are three keys to effective coaching and leadership in the All Blacks system:
1. Self-awareness. Knowing yourself as a coach is the most important step toward becoming an effective coach. Coaches need to build on their strengths while staying flexible in their thinking. Coaches, and athletes, also must be willing to attack and embrace constant pressure to identify and close personal performance gaps. All Blacks coaches enhance their self-awareness through constant reflection, alone and with trusted peers. Frequently reflecting on how they coach helps challenge assumptions (mental models) they hold about coaching and their athletes. It also alerts the coaches to blind spots–important events or behaviors coaches might otherwise overlook that could in some way undermine their approach.
2. Alignment. All coach and athlete behavior must be consistent with the team’s core values. Behavior is governed by high expectations, collective accountability and self-responsibility, not rules or coach-imposed disciplinary consequences. A clearly expressed team identity provides the compass for ensuring alignment. The overriding core value that guides coaching and managerial decisions for the All Blacks is “Better people make better All Blacks.” A focus on developing rugby skills alone is insufficient. Coaches understand that their most fundamental duty is to promote the positive personal growth of their players using rugby as their medium. A recommended exercise used by the All Blacks is to pose the following question at a team meeting: “If you asked other people you respect to describe our team, what would you like them to say?”
3. Vulnerability. Coaches must show humility and not pretend to know all the answers. Coaches gain trust and respect by distributing leadership while seeking and accepting input from athletes. Athletes and coaches are active partners in shaping the team vision and the quest for excellence. Vulnerability is demonstrated by regularly seeking and accepting honest feedback, referred to as ‘discussing the inconvenient facts.’ Although it is important to show empathy toward each other, it is not acceptable to avoid confronting tough issues that can derail excellence. Vulnerability requires high emotional intelligence, a personal characteristic that is highly prized in the All Blacks system. There is little tolerance for athletes who drain the team’s energy. Their coaches do not hesitate to “remove people from the bus.”
At the most elite level of sport, expectations are always set high and pressure is ever-present. Becoming and staying the best in the world is a remarkable achievement. All Blacks coaches believe their club’s reign in rugby is a result of their ability to inspire and facilitate athlete learning in a demanding and fun environment. This is accomplished through careful attention to the three keys to effective coaching and sustained excellence in the All Blacks system, self-awareness, alignment, and vulnerability.
Hodge, K., Henry, G., & Smith, W. (2014). A case study of excellence in elite sport: Motivational climate in a world champion team. The Sport Psychologist, 28, 60-74.
Johnson, T., Martin, A. J., Palmer, F. R., Watson, G., & Ramsey, P. L. (2013). A core value of pride in winning: The All Blacks’ team culture and legacy. International Journal of Sport & Society, 4(1), 1-14.
Johnson, T., Martin, A. J., Palmer, F. R., Watson, G., & Ramsey, P. L. (2013). Artefacts and the All Blacks. Rites, rituals, symbols and stories. Sport Traditions, 30(1), 43-59.
Kerr, J. (2013). Legacy: 15 lessons in leadership (what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life). London: Constable.