Lead like an All Black


Taringa whakarongo!

Let your ears listen!

Kapa o Pango kia whakawhenua au i ahau!

All Blacks, let me become one with the land!

Ko Aotearoa e ngunguru nei!

This is our land that rumbles!

Au, au, aue hā!

It’s our time! It’s our moment!

The All Blacks have been the best rugby team in the world for more than a century, the most successful sporting culture in human history. Their sustained competitive advantage comes through cultural cohesion.

Stuart Lock pointed me in the direction of James Kerr’s book, Legacy, on how the All Blacks succeed. This blogpost summarises what leaders can learn about cultivating a strong culture.


Humility: sweep the sheds 

Humility allows us to ask simple questions: ‘how can we do this better? what do you think? . . . how can we make this better, how can we improve this?’ Excellence begins with humility; with a humble willingness to ‘sweep the sheds’.

Like all good teachers, the All Blacks love to learn.

Focus on the team culture: not how each person performs, but how well they work together. Collective character is vital to success. Focus on getting the culture right; the results will follow.

Leaders are storytellers. All great organisations are born from a compelling story. This central organizing thought helps people understand what they stand for and why.



Train like a champion

Implement a set of high, non-negotiable standards. These standards identify the expectations and set the ethos, the culture of the team.

Practise with intensity: the training, decision-making wise, should be harder than the game; throwing problems at them – unexpected events – forcing them to solve the problems. Replicate playing conditions. Effective training is intense, regular and repetitious. For world-class results, it should be central to the culture. 


Ritual: your own haka

Rituals are key for reinforcing the emotional glue. Inspiring leaders establish rituals to connect their team to its core narrative, using them to reflect, remind, reinforce and reignite their collective identity and purpose. Rituals, symbols and mottos are the welt and weave of elite teams and organizations – the fabric that binds people together. Though the individuals change, the rituals remain, and these rituals are the structure that maintains belief. Rituals make beliefs real and tangible. Rituals tell your story, involve your people, create a legacy. Rituals make the intangible real. By inculcating rituals into a culture, leaders can bottle its essential spirit, capturing it for future generations. Ritual represents a pre-verbal language, physicalising experience. In combination with values and vocabulary, mantras and mottos, narratives and metaphors, signs and symbols, rituals achieve a literal embodiment through repetition of our central story. By creating their own equivalent of the haka, leaders can attach a sense of personal meaning and belonging to the organization’s overall purpose. Wise leaders look for ways to ‘ritualize their enterprise’, to find vivid, visceral process that bring their ethos to life.

Richie McCaw

The current All Black captain, Richie McCaw, has 127 New Zealand caps, 105 points, is the first rugby player to win 100 tests, has an unbelievable 87% win record, won the World Cup, and is the most capped All Black Captain of all time.


“Over time, the All Blacks have been the best team in rugby, setting the standard for the world. There’ve been some great men who made sacrifices, spilt blood for this jersey. You won’t last in this jersey if you’re not prepared to do the things you need to do to fill it.

“I wanted to be captain because I enjoy having an influence on how the team operates and performs; I like the pressure and responsibility that comes with the captaincy; I believe I can improve with experience; I care about how the team goes and want to help set high standards.

“I began breaking my game down into four key roles: tackling, clearing rucks, pressuring the opposition ball, and carrying the ball. I look at the video of breakdowns and ask really specific questions: about the decision to be at that breakdown; whether my technique and timing were right; whether my positioning was good.”


Sean Fitzpatrick

Sean Fitzpatrick played 128 matches for the All Blacks, 50 as captain, won the World Cup, and holds the record for the most matches undefeated. His book Winning Matters is a great insight into All Black leadership.



“To be truly successful you have to set the standards as high as possible, and then expect everybody to consistently achieve them. Having a clear view on where you want to get to as a team – a clear view that everyone understands and that everyone buys into – is critical to its success. You have to be absolutely persistent and obsessive about what you are doing, so everyone knows the plan and is totally committed to getting there.

“Success is all about modest improvements consistently done. All of them can achieve outstanding things if they focus on being the best that they can be, and if they are in a good environment, with a good team. Success is about identifying small specific areas of improvement or cohesion that will make the difference. Put your heart and soul into it.


“Think of your team as a family. If a team feels like a family, it performs like a family, and that is a powerful, powerful thing … families rally round when it gets tough. Families help each other out. Families give straight counsel, and honest feedback. It is the best model I know for a successful team. The more that you can think of your team as your family and act (and demand that they act) as such, the more powerful I believe your team will be.

“Acknowledge them. Understand the value that they have already brought in terms of how they’ve helped and supported you, and let them know that you see it and value it. Then take the next step – think about how to use their talents and support to even better effect. What could they do more of or less of? What changes would you need to make in order to allow them to do that? Look around the team and the group of players and continually be asking myself, ‘How can this team become the best that it can be?’


Lead from the front

“I spent every minute of every waking hour focusing in on the task in hand.

Leading from the front distils down into a simple truth against which you should measure yourself and judge your own performance. Did you do your best? you have to be self-critical and honest.

“You can’t be at your best until you are passionate about what you are doing. What are your passions, your traditions? Seek them out. What are the rituals and symbols that have a positive part to play in your life and your world? They give meaning and motivation to what you’re doing.


“Leading from the front isn’t a part-time role that you can pick up and set down as and when it suits. You have to do it all the time and every time. Doing the basics well matters, whoever you are, and whatever you do. Make no mistake, if you are leading from the front, everybody is watching – so take pride, and do it right.


“You have to do things to the very best of your ability all the time. Everything that you do and say (and those things that you don’t do or don’t say) will impact upon the collective whole and you need to be acutely aware of that. Make sure that personally, you model the excellence you are searching for collectively. You need to be what you want the team to be, and if everyone is doing the same thing as you, then the team becomes stronger.

Front up

“Talk directly, not behind their backs. Put it on the table, sort it out.

“If you are going to be the best that you can be, you are going to have to front up, and get it sorted. Knowing what you want, and being prepared to fight for it puts you at the front of the pack. Fronting up becomes more important precisely as it becomes harder … that is what makes you successful. You have to decide whether to take the easy option or take the tough, sometimes painful road. My choice? Front up. Every time. This is me, and this is who I am. This is what I stand for, and this is my life. I will front up. You have a simple choice. You have to decide. Do you stand up or step aside? To be the best that you can be, front up.”

Sweep the sheds; train like a champion; set your own rituals; see your team as a family, lead from the front; front up – these are the lessons to be learned from the enduring success of the All Blacks.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Lead like an All Black

  1. Alx w says:

    Maccaw Played in 3 wc only won 1. Good article tho 🙂

  2. Sporting examples of Team and Leadership are always interesting, but often it’s difficult to see how they can be extrapolated into other situations (even others in the same sport find it very difficult). In this case what are the key aspects that might be usable in an educational context?
    -clarity of purpose. This is more difficult in a non-sport context, because there are often a large number of inter-connecting purposes to deal with (in sport, it is clear- win). But, clear focus is essential for effectively achieving.
    -it isn’t about the individual: this is slightly counter intuitive…..if every individual in a team is at their best then surely the team will be? No. This just isn’t the case. Then, who is the ‘team’ to be considered? The SLT; they must work together with clear objectives and avoid individual grandstanding or career building (being part of an effective team will automatically be career enhancing). The teaching staff; supporting one another and creating the right peer environment, not finger-blame pointing, interested as much in others’ development as their own. The class (teachers, TAs, students); this is more difficult…..can we get the individual students to work in such a way that they support one another, recognise the role of themselves and the teaching staff together in fulfilling the best outcomes possible? (Can it be about the class’ progress rather than about individual progress…but resulting in the best outcomes for individuals as well?).

    Even when considering examples of excellence, there is a need to be focussed in how those examples are analysed, and about how the lessons can be drawn out of them.

  3. Rob Clarke says:

    Truly fantastic post Joe – really enjoyed reading and reflecting on it. Thanks!

  4. enquireendeavourexcel says:

    Never thought I’d have anything in common with an All Black but this post really captures what our profession’s all about, thanks.

  5. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Pragmatic Education

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