5 lessons learned from the 2015 All Blacks for all great leaders, teams and businesses

The New Zealand rugby team of 2015 is one of the greatest to have ever played the game. Over the last four years, they won 50 out of the 53 matches that they played. A few weeks ago, they became the first nation to retain the Rugby World Cup.

So what makes this group of players special? After watching their performances and discussing their attributes with friends, there are 5 key factors evident in this New Zealand squad, that when compounded together, has resulted in a team that compares favorably against the greatest ever teams in any sport. These traits displayed by the All Blacks teach us not only lessons of a sporting nature, but echo characteristics of all great leaders, teams and businesses.

1. Basics

“I think the All Blacks won because of an ability to do the fundamentals at a higher pace, with more accuracy and precision than any other team.”

The first lesson from watching New Zealand play for people or businesses that wish to perform at a higher level is to do the simple things in your daily routine well. And do them well all the time.

“All players continually work hard on the fundamental basics of catch and pass…at almost every All Blacks training you will see the guys doing work on catch and pass.”

What is the fundamental task that you have to perform consistently well in your role? For an All Black, it is the ability for every player to “catch and pass”. So each All Black player has to ensure that they always operate at the level of optimal performance, even at the basics of the game.

It is not just lip-service either. In any pre-match warm-up or even in the minutes before the second half began in the final, you can see the All Blacks running through basic “catch and pass” routines that are well known even to children’s rugby teams worldwide.

Half time of the 2015 Rugby World Cup… instead of idle chat, the All Blacks tune their basics of “catch and pass” before the second half begins.

Getting picked to play for the All Blacks is akin to how astronauts are selected during their careers. In order for astronauts to be chosen to participate in the NASA training programme, the candidates must be the best-of-the-best in a specialist area of expertise. However, being the best astro-physicist or even the best athlete who is the best astro-physicist, doesn’t guarantee your place on the shuttle.

The astronauts chosen to go to space are the ones who can perform the basic day-to-day duties in the manner most beneficial to the team in the space station. You have to be a specialist to be considered, but you have to be the best generalist to succeed. For the All Blacks, it doesn’t matter if you are the best scrummaging forward ever seen, to be picked you must be able to handle the ball as well under pressure as the other 14 players in the team.

What is the equivalent of “catch and pass” in your daily role? Do you always practice this to the best possible level?

Ritchie McCaw — rugby’s greatest ever player. On the left, practicing the basics of “catch and pass”. On the right, relying on his basic skills when it matters most — in the final against Australia.

2. Skill

“I was struck by the skill and intelligence of their play, more so than their physicality or athleticism.”

Allayed to the All Blacks’ rigorous application of fundamental skills is a constitutional creed to take the game to their opponents at all stages.

“New Zealand averaged 5.6 tries per game, no other side averaged more than four — this team constantly looked for attacking opportunities.”

The most successful people in any walk of life seek opportunities and prioritise actions which contribute to the achievement of goals. For the All Blacks, this means playing the game with a superior level of skill and in a manner that ensures that they are in the ascendancy by holding possession and attacking intelligently.

“They’ve a habit of just forcing trends in the game of rugby”

Long-term development always stems from acting in a manner that promotes continual growth . With the All Blacks, there is always some new trinket or nuance evident in their play. They are the trend setters rather than the trend followers.

Rugby in New Zealand is a game where physicality and intellect is equally important. As a player, you are expected to provide insight and input to training sessions, share ideas, talk rugby. The coach is merely a facilitator. They create intelligent and adaptable rugby players. Because players are empowered to figure out the game themselves. They are raised bold and therefore also become more skilled as they keep trying new things.”

What are you exceptional at? Demonstrate and display that skill and talent publicly, not just when it is asked or required of you. What new skills do you develop each month / quarter / year ?

Replacement prop Joe Moody demonstrating superior skill at full pace in the Quarter Final against France. Most of the flair players of other nations cannot produce this skill in a game, especially not under pressure and definitely not executed by a prop!

3. Adaptability

“One of the best things about this All Black team is the way they notice how the game is flowing, take account of the weather conditions or whatever, and play the game accordingly — they can move to Plan B, or even Plan C.”

As conditions, environments and markets change — strong foundations (the basics) combined with the consistent application of skill will leave you best placed to evolve and navigate new challenges.

Have a look at other teams versus the All Blacks in the sheds at half time… with other teams the coach or coaching team will address the players, but with the Blacks, the players are sitting in their units and talking to each other with the coaches standing outside of these little circles and listening in. This was the case even in the final. This is an important principle of how players adapt to the game as they have been out there in the first half and understand details and intensity that neither the coaches nor the analysts could observe”.

People who react best to life’s speed-bumps, approach every day with the attitude of controlling the things that are under their influence while not focusing energy on the random consequential factors that are outside of their control. They do not await advice for how to proceed and make decisive decisions based on observed evidence and facts of the matter.

“NZ played at all stages like they always knew they were going to win no matter what difficulties they encountered in the game. The wealth of experience they had in the team showed in their ability to adapt their strategy when required during matches.”

Does your business evolve as clients’ needs change? How do you pro-actively problem solve? How do you personally react in times of change?

Another of the games all-time greats, Daniel Carter, consistently demonstrated the qualities of adaptability when it was required in the tournament. Pictured here, in the rain against South Africa in the semi-final, kicking a drop-goal to put the game out of the opposition’s reach. He repeated the feat in the final.

4. Culture

“I would put it down to team culture. The culture behind the All Blacks is so well respected by the players. They don’t become complacent or set unattainable goals to better themselves. The All Blacks never just settle for being number one in the world, they are always competing against themselves.”

Graham Henry coached the All Blacks to success in the 2011 World Cup. There is a story of his time in charge of the Auckland Blues in 1996 that gives a lesson to anyone who organizes teams in sport or business. The Blues won the southern hemisphere rugby championship (then called the ‘Super 12') in 1996. During the annual review hosted by the New Zealand Rugby Union for the professional rugby entities at the end of the season in 1996, Henry was invited to present to the other professional coaches about the methods employed by the Blues which resulted in their achievements that season.

Legend has it that Henry spent the next two hours presenting and answering questions in depth about what contributed to their success. No secret to preparation, tactics or performance was left unexplained. When asked subsequently why he had just handed his rival coaches from the other New Zealand provinces the secrets to Auckland’s strategy, he responded that now that his team had got to the highest standard, they would have to abandon the methods they used to get there. They would have to start again, improve and evolve because they had now set the benchmark which other teams would adapt to. His team had to better that standard in the future. It is this attitude and approach that gives an insight into New Zealand’s performance mindset. The Auckland Blues went on to retain their Super 12 title in 1997.

“They always try to better their performance from the previous game…that’s what really keeps them on top…they don’t have the attitude that they are great or awesome — they have the attitude to always find a way to improve and progress”

“They are so good at focusing only on what counts. Mentally, they prepare for every match the same way. They block out all the emotion.”

Over a century the All Blacks have created a culture of winning. They use this rich history, not as a weight of expectation but as a reassurance of their superiority. There is a maxim that they have ingrained in their players minds — WIN WIN. What Is Next. What Is Now. On the pitch they are conditioned to mentally focus on what their next action is and what they can do to influence the game in that present moment.

WIN WIN — What Is Next, What is Now.

Who are the people that you surround yourself with and how do they influence you? Do you create, prioritise and refine your goals over time? Are you dedicated to improvement? Is your environment creating a culture of excellence?

If culture eats strategy for breakfast then New Zealand’s culture eats it for breakfast, lunch and dinner! The structures around New Zealand’s rugby team is one which creates a culture of excellence that is not simply focused on creating better rugby players on the pitch but better people off the pitch.

5. Humility

“They are humble whether they win or lose.”

The hardest thing isn’t becoming an All Black, it is staying an All Black. To last in the All Blacks squad, you must be “mentally elite” — a person who always performs at a higher level when it counts. There is an expectation of humility that comes with being an All Black — the way you carry yourself, the words you speak, the consistent example you set through your actions.

They respected the shape of the ball, respected each team they played, respected rugby, and played the tournament minute by minute to the best of their ability. Their reaction after the semi-final told the story of a team who approached the tournament one moment and one game at the time. They were humble in victory.

Gilbert Enoka, the mental skills coach who is credited by players as a key person to winning the 2011 World Cup, once put it, there is a ‘no dickheads’ policy in the group!

The senior players still sweep and clean the changing rooms after a game. The players and management families all travelled to the UK for the duration of the tournament. The All Blacks made a point of mixing in the communities they were staying and displaying gratitude for their hosts hospitality. There are many stories of players actively reaching outside the confines of their training base to invite and include everyday people to share in their journey.

I think this ethos of humility and gratitude is the most important starting point for acquiring a “mentally elite” mindset and building and maintaining the culture of the All Blacks. If you don’t have the right attitude to be an All Black , you don’t make it — even if you have the talent.

Sonny Bill Williams displaying the humility associated with New Zealand rugby.
Humility is the opposite of arrogance. It forces us to see others as more important than ourselves. In the words of former All Black great Andrew Mehrtens: “Humility is a cardinal virtue of the team”.

How do you display humility and gratitude in your relationships, job or actions? Do you cultivate humility and modesty as a habit?

The All Blacks have been setting the benchmark for preparation, application, innovation and evolution in the game of rugby for over a century.

None of the above five characteristics (basics, skill, adaptability, culture or humility) are impossible to replicate by any person, team or business. However, it is the devotion to consistent excellence, growth and resilience and compounded by the actions of each self-effacing individual in the organisation that sums up to greatness in time. And this greatness was embodied by the 2015 All Blacks.

The 2015 All Blacks — a team for the ages.