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Leadership lessons from the Boks and leading sports teams

Siya Kolisi recently led the Springboks to a 2-1 series win over the touring English rugby side in his first series as captain. Despite not winning the final encounter at Newlands, the intensity and commitment shown by Kolisi and his team mates, has re-ignited the nation in getting behind the Boks. There’s nothing like sport to unite a nation and nothing like a good series win to unite a team.

On the sports field, we see a microcosm of life play out. When the going gets tough, sports stars get grounded. They pull together and rely on each other’s talents to turn the situation around. And perhaps that’s the big lesson corporates need to learn. In fact, there are lots of learning we can take from leading sports teams to create winning workplaces. Sport psychology is becoming popular beyond just the sporting realm, with many individuals adopting its mantras in everyday life. By extending this to corporates we bolster businesses’ resilience and give them the best chance of taking the trophy home – whatever form that victory may take. As an avid sports fan and former Chief Learning Officer and lecturer for the University of Stellenbosch Business School Executive Development (USB-ED) division, I continuously find it useful to apply lessons from the field to leadership in the working world. Here are some of my main takeaways:

The value of a vision: A leading sports team and a winning company share the same traits: Both have a vision and relentlessly follow it. Think of John Landy, the Australian sprinter. Despite repeated attempts, he was unable to achieve his dream of running a mile in sub four minutes until he witnessed Roger Bannister do so on 6 May 1954. Suddenly believing his goal to be doable, Landy broke Bannister’s record just 46 days later, with a time of 3:57. As leaders, it’s important to have a vision and to cascade it through a company. And it’s important to make it achievable. It really is about inspiration: During the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Henning Gericke, psychologist to the South African team, photo-shopped pictures of each player superimposed on Francois Pienaar’s body, holding up the cup. The players kept these with them throughout the tournament, which they went on to win. There’s something to be said for imagining yourself not as you are but as who you could become. Leaders need to nurture every member of a team to believe in his or her potential, and the potential of the team as a whole. Keep calm: In the office and on the field, there’s constant pressure to perform. Businesses stress the need for success and hammer home the message of hard work and always being the best to staff. Burn out’s a common side effect and people often flounder when faced with seemingly impossible KPIs. When the pressure hits hardest, it’s imperative to stay calm and composed. "I did not have to say much when we were in trouble because everybody was calm. We knew we were going to rock and the guys picked up the momentum” – so said Kolisi about his halftime pep talk in his inaugural match as SA’s first black Test captain. And that calm focus helped the team win the match. Captains make the call: When a match – or a business strategy – isn’t going the way it should, leaders need to step up and have alternate turn-around strategies in place. These contingency plans need to be well-communicated to the rest of the team in order to be executed effectively. Individual players need to be empowered to take risks – if these work, they could result in victory; if they don’t then the team is wiser for next time. In the office, who is the captain and who is the coach? The coach is usually a line manager – or an external consultant or specialist. It can also be one’s peers – there’s nothing like the support or mentorship of one’s teammates to encourage personal and professional progression. On the field, the captain (aka CEO) makes big decisions about 5% of the time; the other 95% of the time, decisions are made by normal players (employees) within the moment of the game. Every player is a captain and needs to be encouraged and groomed as such. That’s also critical to any team’s successful succession plan. Setting other players up to score: In sport, only a few players actually get the opportunity to score; the rest of the team’s job is to set them up to do so. Similarly in an office, cross-departmental collaboration is key for sustained growth and success. Although only one person may score the actual goal, leaders should reward the whole team for the win. The business of the bench: Every excellent sports team has an exceptional bench of reserves, waiting to swap out with the on-field players. Similarly, every business aiming for longevity and sustained relevancy needs a ‘bench’ of diverse, up-and-coming leaders ready to replace the ‘old guard.’ Leaders need to start training young people at school-age. Soccer stars start young, usually not at age 18. What sets a team up for failure?

  • No fans (no customers)

  • No vision or goal (to share with the team and shareholders to make them part of the journey)

  • No empowerment of players (employees) to take risks, be creative and innovative

What sets a team up for success? Planning. Lou Holtz, the famous Notre Dame football coach, once said: “Winning is never accidental. All successful coaches and players have at least one thing in common: a strong game plan. I have seen teams short on talent win famous victories simply because they were better prepared and more focused than their opposition”. As a leader, how do you create this game plan for success? Challenge your conventional thinking – plan and prepare better than anyone else in the corporate environment. Details make the difference, along with creativity and continuous learning, rethinking and reinventing.

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