5 Leadership lessons from the All Blacks Defeat

© Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.Photosport.nz

How thrilling it was watching the Rugby World Cup (RWC) held in Japan these past six weeks. As a nation, we felt proud of our boys – the incomparable All Blacks (Abs) in that famous black jersey. The possibility of a third consecutive RWC win loomed large.

But alas, it was not to be. In the semi-finals, the English team surprisingly put on a dominant performance which left the All Blacks with little possession and territory to perform their usual magic.

The shock and disappointment were compounded for many fans as their expectation for a strong second half revival failed to materialise.

And just like that, we were out of the running to bring the Webb Ellis Cup home again.

In the days following, we empathised with their pain and acknowledged their third-place win. We said goodbye to their exceptional coach, Steve Hansen, the captain – a great leader – Kieran Read and the other stalwarts such as Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams and Matt Todd.

But here is the thing.

As a nation, while we did not get to see a third consecutive win, what we did get to witness was something even mightier – the character of the All Blacks.

Through their handling of defeat, the All Blacks culture and character shone through.

Here are five leadership lessons we can learn from them:

 1) Gracious in defeat 

Life brings many ups and downs, and we can’t always stay on top, no matter how smart, talented or skilled we are. Adversity does strike, and our mettle gets tested. It is not just how we perform when we are on top of our game, but what we do when we are in the depth of misery, disappointment and failure.

The All Blacks handled their loss with grace. Right after the game, despite feeling gutted both the coach and the captain were quick to front up and acknowledge how well the English team had played.

Despite their considerable pain, at that moment when it would have been easy to give in to churlishness, frustration and anger, they remained remarkably humble and grounded, giving credit where it was due.

In our business and personal life, we can certainly take a page out of this. How easy it is to feel sorry for oneself, make excuses, blame the other party and get angry when things do not go our way when the expected does not happen.

But this is not what we saw with the Abs.

2) Importance of reflection time

The All Blacks came together to reflect on what happened the day after and beyond that.

“I believe we lost because deep, deep, deep down in the pit of our guts, we did not have what the English had……Success is a cruel companion because what happens is that you never feel the pain that comes with a real big adversity….That for the next four years….It will be personal and that will make whatever they want even more important.” Steven Hansen in an interview with Gregor Paul in the NZ Herald. 

They then regrouped to come back to play in the third/fourth playoff game that got described as “a game that no team wants to play.”

The All Blacks fronted and played a good game against Wales. This was a bitter-sweet victory.

3) Expressing your feelings

The old mantra for men has been “Big boys don’t cry.” Again, the All Blacks reflected and showed that it is okay to demonstrate one’s grave sense of grief and loss. It is okay to feel the pain, and it is okay to let the tears out.

“Coach asked us all individually how we’re feeling,” said Smith. “There was a lot of pain there, a lot of honesty. You’ve got grown men pouring their hearts out and that’s shown real massive vulnerability,” Aaron Smith RWC 2019 News.

Healthy emotional expression is vital for our sense of well-being and wellness. Repressing and suppressing our emotions is not. The feelings we resist tumble out in inappropriate ways when we least expect them to.

“You’ve only got to look at the stats for New Zealand suicides and mental health and it’s not great. So allowing yourself to be vulnerable and show emotion is really important. We get called role models and I’m not so sure if we are or not. But if people want to call us role models I think it’s great that these guys are role modelling the fact that you can be emotional and vulnerable.” Steve Hansen in an article by David Long in Stuff.

Being able to feel and release painful emotions is what allows us to learn and grow.

It enables us to process, review, and move forward with lessons learnt, as did the All Blacks in the past week and no doubt, will continue to in the future.

 4) A culture of respect and trust

Steve Hansen and the coaching team have created a strong culture of respect and trust – a culture that allows honest conversations to take place, where mistakes are admitted to without penalty, and where constructive feedback is given and taken on board for improvement.

For players, what gives confidence is knowing that your back is covered. That you can count on your teammate to take that pass and shine by doing what they are good at; where egos don’t dominate and where you are playing not for yourself but for the team.

In the business world, we can do a lot better in fostering greater respect, inclusion and trust with those we share so much of our time – our colleagues and customers.

5) Showing character

“The most important thing we can do now is show that if your character’s tested, you can stand up to it. That’s the greatest success we can take out of this tournament, the greatest success we can show young people in New Zealand who are aspiring All Blacks or aspiring to be anything. You’ve got to have character.” Steve Hansen RWC 2019 News

Being able to show humility and dignity in the face of adversity is a sign of character; to stay committed to the truth no matter what and to show integrity.

The Abs had the honesty to accept where they did not measure up. No matter how raw it was, in their de-brief, they were able to own up to their part in their defeat.

Underpinning all this is another hallmark of character and excellence – the desire to keep improving. Unlike other teams, they have managed to stay at the top for many years because they have the constant mantra to keep improving and to strive for excellence.

What ultimately sets an individual, team or organisation apart is having a sound set of values which serve as an ethical compass.   This helps us navigate a sure pathway through any disappointment, loss and failure.

In their defeat, the All Blacks have shown how to stand up with humanity, integrity and character – a winning combination and inspiration for us all.


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