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“The captain – to be or not to be…”

Well-known author and management consultant Warren Bennis once said: “leadership is the capability to translate vision into reality”.

This has been proven many times through the years – in big corporates and in the triumphs of successful sporting teams. Envisioning the end goal and leading your team there is what defines good leadership.

Is this management’s job in a corporate?

Let’s look at leadership and management and compare how these concepts play out in business and sport. A good starting point is South Africa’s 2019 Rugby World Cup victory. Let’s remind ourselves:

  • The Springboks are now the most successful World Cup team ever – having won 43% of all Word Cups they have played in (versus, for example, the All Blacks who have only achieved a 33% success rate)

  • The Springboks have never lost a World Cup final

  • The Springboks have never conceded a try in a World Cup final

  • They were the first team to win the Championship Series and World Cup in the same year

  • They were the first team to lose a pool game but still go on to win the World Cup

This is no insignificant achievement, and most people will agree that there is something about the Springbok team that comes alive during the World Cup. Remember 1995 in South Africa…or 2007 in France…and of course 2019 in Japan! It seems South Africa always has an advantage: morale and higher purpose that they are playing for. This success is facilitated by having a vision of their ultimate destination and focusing solely on that vision. We also know that the efforts and achievements of a team sport is far greater than any individual. This is why individuals need to know how to effectively lead their teams, exactly like in corporate business or in an organisation.

As a matter of simplicity, let’s compare the boardroom with the Rugby World Cup structures, arguing that the board of directors is similar to the coach of the rugby team. Both provide significant leadership and guidance towards the end-goal. However, just for the moment, let’s ignore the “off-the-field” structures and put our attention to the “on-field” action. This is where the rubber hits the road or the ball bounces off the grass, and this is where quick, agile, risky and bold decisions must be made…both in the boardroom and on the field. We are of course referring to our two “on-field” heroes – the CEO and the captain. Both are under enormous pressure to succeed, endure tremendous stress to make the right decisions at the right time, and, perhaps most importantly, are expected to lead their people into victory.

Keeping this in mind, it is critically important to choose the right leader for organisations and sporting teams.

Let’s have a look at how this typically happens:

However, it has been proven through leadership theories and definitions that not all good managers are good leaders and vice-versa. This distinguishes the role of leader away from the typical managerial growth of an employee and a player. Rather like this:

This indicates clearly that even specialist employees or sports players can be leaders in their respective areas without being managers or captains. It is this important theory and phenomenon that underlies this article.

Based on this, I hypothesise that the best player or specialist does not necessarily make the best captain or CEO. In fact, choosing the right person to lead a team or an organisation is far more important than having the “best” player or “manager”. I would like to illustrate this through some important lessons and experiences from the three Rugby World Cups that the Springboks have won. I also need to state that this is purely a personal view, but helps illustrate my point:

The three captains (leaders) of the World Cup winning teams in 1995, 2007 and 2019 were NOT necessarily the best players in their respective positions.

Here’s a quick reminder of who they were:

  • 1995 – Francois Pienaar from the then Transvaal. Generally, most people regarded Western Province skipper, Tiaan Strauss, as the best Nr 6 flank in South Africa at the time. However, Kitch Christie, the Springbok coach team felt that Francois was the right leader for the team.

  • 2007 – John Smit from the Sharks. Once again, the majority of South Africans had a strong argument that someone like Bismarck du Plessis was a better specialist, technical hooker at the time. Once again, Jake White, the Springbok coach, knew that he needed the strongest leader for the team to take on the World Cup in France.

  • 2019 – Siya Kolisi. Who will ever forget the magical moment when he held the World Cup in Japan on 2 November 2019. Was he the best specialist Nr 6 flanker in South Africa? Probably not. But again, Springbok coach, Rassie Erasmus, knew he had to choose the right leader to take on the battle in the land of the Sun!

This raises an interesting, age-old debate – do you first choose your best 15 players and then the captain, or first your captain and then the rest of the team? The above argument supports the latter. However, this decision must be made in total view of the bigger picture and the other resources of the organisation and team.

We can take this philosophy further into politics and corporate business.

Let’s take Bill Gates as an example. As the founder and mastermind behind Microsoft, Bill Gates naturally (and by default) became CEO. However, he very soon realised that he was not the best captain (CEO) of the ship as he did not see himself as a great leader, and therefore demoted himself to Architectural Engineer. Neither the CEO nor the leader, but still the second richest man in the world at the time and still owning 51% of Microsoft’s shares.

Nelson Mandela, who is globally recognised as one of the best leaders in the world, was not necessarily the best president (CEO or manager) of a country. However, his skills lay in his leadership abilities, which pulled an entire nation together against all odds.

In essence, in sport and business the focus is on bringing Individuals together for a common goal. Knowing the psychological make-up of your team members is therefore of paramount importance. This is how World Cups leaders were chosen and how leaders in an organisation should be chosen.

However, let’s now focus on how this should be dealt with; over-emphasising the CEO as the ultimate leader in a company has resulted in many corporate governance failures of late (Markus Jooste of Steinhoff International, for example). We should learn from sport where there are without a doubt more leaders than just the captain.

It is a well-known fact that various senior players within South Africa’s 2019 winning Rugby World Cup team played a significant role in the campaign victory – Handre Pollard (as vice-captain), Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw, Jesse Kriel, Willie le Roux, Eben Etzetbeth, Beast Mtwarira, to name a few. These men are all senior leaders in their own right, who fully supported and even guided the captain at times. Siya Kolisi acknowledge this fact at the global Laureus awards ceremony in November 2019. Siya Kolisis led the team on the field and played a significant role leading the team. However, the Springboks needed all senior leaders to participate in the overall team effort.

This is the same approach that should be followed within organisations. The CEO cannot be expected to run the company as leader alone but rather needs a strong group of leaders with and beside him (note: not below him).

Peter Drucker said: “success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves – their strengths, their values and how they best perform”.

I believe this sentiment was behind the success of all three Springbok Rugby World Cup campaigns. Knowing the players well and utilising their skills and leadership abilities for the benefit of the team and end vision is what all three coaches got right.

Another clear example of this is the way that Siya Kolisi protested walking alone up to the podium to receive the trophy, rather wanting to have the “other” leaders join him. So, what lessons can we learn from the locker rooms of these World Cup experiences and leadership approaches?

  • Strong leaders create strong teams. Nothing can be done on your own – no one is that powerful. Successful teams and organisations have more than one strong leader.

  • The best player or technical specialist in an organisation or team is not necessarily the best leader.

  • Keep your eye on the main goal and vision and find someone that can guide that true north. Like Michael Jordan, the famous basketball player once said – One thing I believe to the fullest is that if you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.

People will remember the service of a leader and their ability to create a positive workspace where people are energised, motivated and led. Leaders will not be remembered for technical skills or abilities. Make sure you choose the right leader for your organisation…

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