The New Zealand national rugby union team, commonly called the All Blacks, is the most successful sports team in history. They have a 77% win rate since their international debut in 1903.
What is the All Blacks’ competitive advantage? According to Legacy - What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, a great book by James Kerr, they win because of their ability to manage their culture and align their players with their Core Values and Core Purpose.
Even if you don’t know the sport of rugby, the All Blacks are famous around the world for the “Haka,” the Maori war dance they perform before each match. In many ways, the dance brings their core values and core purpose to life, right before each game. They win not so much because of what they do, but because of who they are, what they stand for, and why they exist.
I was especially pleased to see that the All Blacks capture their Core Values in the same format we use to coach our business clients. I have long recommended using three to five word statements to describe each Core Value, because one-word values statements are too ambiguous and not very helpful. In three to five words, you should be able to state very clearly the type of behavior you expect from your people in a way that is easy to recite and remember.
I also recommend using words and phrases that are unique to your culture; words and phrases that your people would really use and say every day. The All Blacks call this “Inventing your own language”. You create a vocabulary that binds your culture together. Here are some examples:
“Sweep the sheds”
Which means be humble. Even the captain picks up a broom and helps to clean up the locker room after the big game. The All Blacks select for character over talent. The players are taught never to let their egos get too big.
“Follow the spearhead”
Which means to move in the same direction and work together as a team, just like a flock of birds flying in V formation across the sky (because flying in formation is 70% more efficient than flying solo). Players may be individual stars, but if they do not fit in with the flock, they will be ejected from the team
Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi also expressed a similar value when he said, “The question is not how well each person performs, but how well they work together”
“Champions do extra”
Which means doing a little bit more when it comes to training - an extra rep, an extra ten minutes, an extra set, an extra circuit. First to arrive at the gym, and the last to leave.
“Keep a blue head”
Which means keep calm under pressure. By controlling what you focus your attention on, you can control your performance on the field, and by controlling your performance you can control the game.
“Leave the jersey in a better place”
Which means being a role model for future players. Coach Graham Henry says, “You don’t own the jersey, you’re just the body in the jersey at the time. It’s your job to continue the legacy and add to it when you get your opportunity.”
The All Blacks are famous for their haka, the ritualized Maori war dance. It’s one of the most exciting and distinctive phenomena in world sport, and it's central to the All Blacks’ brand.
Yet that is not why the team performs it. The All Blacks use the haka to reconnect with their Core Purpose - to summon their ancestors up from the earth to aid them in the coming battle. They use it to intimidate the competition, and to bond with one another.
The All Blacks’ Core Purpose is about sacrificing everything for the team and honoring the All Blacks legend.
The following legendary story sums it up well. “In 1986, Buck Shelford the All Blacks captain was leading his men in a game against France. It was brutal and bloody. Early in the game, a French boot raked and ripped open Shelford’s scrotum. They say a testicle was showing. He limped to the sideline, where a medic stitched up his scrotum, without anaesthetic, before he returned to the field and kept on playing. Shelford later came off, not because of the testicular injury, but because he was concussed, with two teeth missing”.
Extreme? Absolutely. But it is a powerful example of why the All Blacks remain the most successful sports team in history. There are many other great stories contained in the book.
What lessons can you take from these examples to build a winning culture?
Who are you, what do you stand for, and why do you exist?