"I just love the fact that in rugby you look after your mates … You’re the best you can be, not only for yourself, but for the sake of your mates."

Kori in Hartford just sent this to me … Thanks Kori!

Leadership at a Fever Pitch
by Jim Citrin

The career of celebrated rugby team captain Sean Fitzpatrick, and the sport itself, offer lessons for business leaders.

Despite current travails, the New York Yankees is the most successful franchise in North American sports history. But if you’re seeking inspiration from the world of team sports, the best place to look is New Zealand.

For over a century, the All Blacks has been the world’s foremost rugby team. No other sports franchise in the world has achieved a 72 percent winning percentage over as long a period. It’s amazing that a nation of just 4 million (where sheep outnumber people) can produce the greatest team in the history of any sport.

Outstanding in His Field
Rugby is wildly popular across much of the world, and it’s rapidly gaining popularity in the United States. There are 83,000 players here, and a new governing organization, the USA Rugby Board, dedicated to growing the sport. But rugby is deeply rooted in New Zealand, and has longstanding traditions of excellence.

Sean Fitzpatrick, captain of the All Blacks from 1992 until his retirement in 1997, is considered the greatest team leader ever. With his dynamic playmaking, competitiveness, and durability, he was an exemplary player, amassing an unparalleled 86 percent winning percentage over a record 92 international test matches.

But it’s Fitzpatrick’s leadership off the field that makes him widely regarded as the most inspiring All Blacks captain of all time. Through his clear goal-setting, respect for his predecessors, management of cultural change, and empathetic yet decisive decision-making, he embodied and unleashed the proud spirit of rugby.

A True Team Player
After stepping down as a player, Fitzpatrick continues to work as an ambassador for the game as well as managing two New Zealand national teams. In 2004, he became a TV commentator in Britain. He’s also become active in business, joining the board of a leading health care provider in the U.K. and serving as a consultant to corporate leadership teams, and is a highly sought-after motivational speaker in Europe and the United States.

“I love rugby because it’s very much a team game, and there are powerful lessons for excellence in business and life,” Fitzpatrick says. “I know this may sound trite, but it’s all about the team.

“On the team, we’re all equal, contributing to the singular goal of winning,” he continues. “You may have six different stars, but at the end of the day we’re all the same. I just love the fact that in rugby you look after your mates. It’s very important to make sure that you’re the best you can be, not only for yourself, but for the sake of your mates.”

Ancient Roots
Great leaders draw inspiration from tradition and putting the team’s efforts in an inspirational context. Nowhere is this more evident than with the All Blacks’ pre-game ritual, the haka.

Fitzpatrick explains the haka and its significance: “It was a traditional war dance used by the indigenous Maori tribes in New Zealand when they went into battle. When the warriors left their communities, they would perform a haka to say to their enemy, ‘We are going out to war, we are going to fight you.’ All of the synchronized moves are about summoning and conveying strength.”

Anyone who’s ever seen an All Blacks game can attest to the terror that the haka, performed at midfield facing the opposing team, generates among the other players.

A Link to the Past
Rugby is different from other sports in that it has a spiritual component best described by the Maori word “wakapappa,” which means “unbreakable bonds.” Kevin Roberts, Chairman of the USA Rugby Board and CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the leading global advertising agencies and part of Publicis Groupe S.A., the fourth-largest communications company in the world, explains: “Wakapappa is the key to leadership. In the unbreakable bonds of wakapappa, your relationships with your teammates, your ancestors, and across the world are paramount.”

As captain of the All Blacks, Fitzpatrick invoked this philosophy as well as the team’s predecessors and the expectations of his nation to inspire the team. “It’s about the people that have come before us. We speak a lot about the players of old. We have them come and talk to us about their times and why they were successful.

“The first time I played on the team,” he goes on, “the veterans came in and talked about what it means to be an All Black and the expression, ‘Once an All Black, always an All Black.’ We were so moved by what they were saying that we cried.

“If you look at the best players in New Zealand, the reason they stay in the country is because they want to play for the All Blacks; in Europe, they could earn three times what they make down there. And once they become an All Black, they are expected to win.”

A Passion for the Brand
This translates to the core leadership lesson from rugby to business. According to Fitzpatrick, excellence is achieved when people relate not just intellectually but also emotionally to their organization.

“With the All Blacks, a passion for the brand is paramount,” he says. “When a team member puts on the All Blacks jersey, he knows that he can win, that he must win. Winning as an All Black is not about the individual, or even about today’s team. Each player feels part of an unbroken tradition going back over a century.”

Similarly, in a company, Fitzpatrick believes you can’t motivate people over the long term without an emotional connection, a historical context, and a purpose larger than the self.

This doesn’t come without hard work. When Fitzpatrick became captain of the All Blacks, for example, he determined that fundamental cultural change was needed. “The team had developed these rules,” Fitzpatrick says, “such as, ‘The young guys don’t mingle.’ They weren’t supposed to talk to the older guys unless spoken to. And they were not to ask questions. I realized that the culture was holding us all back. We were all one team.”

Respect Fuels Leadership
So Fitzpatrick led a change in how the team operated. “I started speaking to the older players the same way I spoke to the younger players, with no more or less respect,” he says. “I was very inclusive of the younger guys and encouraged them to put their hands up during team meetings. Before that time, they never dared ask a question.” As the culture of the team improved, it carried over into the quality of their play on the field.

When it comes to being a leader, Fitzpatrick believes that the most important thing is earning the respect of the players. “The first thing I worked on,” he says, “was demonstrating that I deserved to have the job. The easiest way to do that was to train harder than anyone else and play the best rugby. I’m a big believer that respect is probably the number-one ingredient in effective leadership.

“If someone doesn’t respect you, you’re never going to get anything out of them,” he concludes. “You can’t ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself. I say to people who want to lead, ‘You don’t need to be liked, but you need to be respected.’ I’m sure the players that played under me probably didn’t like me. But they respected me. I’m happier there.”

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2 responses to “"I just love the fact that in rugby you look after your mates … You’re the best you can be, not only for yourself, but for the sake of your mates."

  1. fuctifano

    It’s even more amazing that every four years the world is fed spoonfuls of hype that this is the greatest rugby team / nation ever and every four years they choke when it matters.

  2. Blue Division Rugby

    Ludicrous. They are the best team over time, but there are other teams just as good (and better) at any given moment. Only 1999 can reasonably be described as a “choke” (and it was a choke of epic proportions). The rest were simply cases of one good team meeting another. To say otherwise is to deny the achievements of some very good Australian and South African sides.

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