THE BLOG
21/06/2018 11:54 SAST | Updated 21/06/2018 11:54 SAST

What Can Corporate Leaders Learn From The Springboks? Quite A Lot, Actually

When the going gets tough, sports stars get grounded. They pull together and rely on one another's talents to turn the situation around. Perhaps that's the big lesson corporates need to learn.

Siya Kolisi (C) celebrates after scoring a try against France during the Test match between South Africa and France at Kings Park in Durban on June 17 2017.
Gianluigi Guercia/ Getty Images
Siya Kolisi (C) celebrates after scoring a try against France during the Test match between South Africa and France at Kings Park in Durban on June 17 2017.

On June 16, South Africans' hearts beat in unison as the inimitable Siya Kolisi led his team to a series-clinching 23-12 victory against the English side. Our hearts exploded green and gold as our team went 2-0 up in the three-match series with Kolisi as captain.

There's nothing like sport to unite a nation. There's nothing like the dream of a win to unite a team. On a 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 one another's talents to turn the situation around. Perhaps that's the big lesson corporates need to learn.

In fact, there are a lot of lessons we can take from leading sports teams to create winning workplaces. Sport psychology is becoming popular beyond 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 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.

On the field, the captain (aka CEO) makes big decisions about 5 percent of the time; the other 95 percent of the time, decisions are made by normal players (employees) within the moment of the game.

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 under four minutes until he witnessed Roger Bannister do so on May 6 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, Photoshopped 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 for staff. Burnout is 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.

Action Plus via Getty Images
Siya Kolisi during the Springbok captain's media briefing in Johannesburg; June 8 2018.

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 turnaround 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 percent of the time; the other 95 percent 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.

Leaders need to start training young people at school age. Soccer stars start young – usually not at age 18.

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 innovate.

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.