Book Extract: Legacy, What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life

James Kerr is a London-based author and creative consultant. He and photojournalist Nick Danziger produced Mana, from their five weeks embedded in the All Blacks set-up in 2010 as they worked toward the Rugby World Cup. Last year, Mr Kerr revisited key figures from the World Cup success, including former coach Sir Graham Henry and his right-hand men Wayne Smith and Gilbert Enoka, for Legacy.


Book Extract: Legacy

Maui – the discoverer of the secret of fire – was spearing birds with his brothers one day. But as his spear had no barbs, their prey escaped them. Maui’s mother told him to use sticks to create barbs for his weapon – which he did. They feasted on kereru (pigeon) that night.

Somewhere over the Indian Ocean, on a long, disconsolate flight between South Africa and New Zealand, the new All Blacks assistant coach, Wayne Smith, turned to Darren Shand, his team manager, and told him, ‘We have a dysfunctional team – if it’s not fixed, I won’t be back.’

The All Blacks had just lost to South Africa 40-26, finishing last in the annual Tri-Nations tournament. For a team attuned to winning, and with the highest ‘kill rate’ in world sport, it was a disaster. But, as Bob Howitt tells it in Final Word, worse was to follow that night at the team hotel.

A ‘Court Session’, a mock trial fuelled by the forced consumption of alcohol, had left some very famous faces chronically drunk; some so much so that they were worried for their lives. It was later reported that some of the Springbok players, billeted in the same hotel and returning from a meal to celebrate their series victory, had to extract various All Blacks from hallways, bushes and gutters and put them in the recovery position.

Something had to change.

‘The way we were going was not going to cut the mustard in the professional era,’ says Gilbert Enoka, the tall, personable mental skills coach. ‘You can’t work all week and then have Saturday night through to Monday off where you bloody drink and sink.’

Graham Henry, the head coach, had only recently been entrusted with the top job in New Zealand sport. After the debacle, Smith slipped him a note insisting that we ‘fix this thing.’

It was the beginning of a long, painstaking and often painful process that eventually led to Rugby World Cup glory. What these men – Henry, Smith, Hansen, Enoka, Shand, together with the players – achieved is a case study in transformational culture change, its lessons applicable well beyond the rugby field.


Will Hogg believes that effective organizational change requires four key stages. The absence of any one factor, the management consultant says, will inhibit culture change and often make it impossible:

Four Stages for Organizational Change:

A Case for Change;
A Compelling Picture of the Future;
A Sustained Capability to Change;
A Credible Plan to Execute.

The Case for Change for the All Blacks was clear. Performance was sub-par, both on and off the field. ‘I wasn’t in the room,’ says former All Blacks captain, Anton Oliver, ‘but it started by Tana [Umaga, the then captain] saying, “I don’t really want to play, I’m scared of playing. I’m not enjoying it.” Everyone had been locked in their own little islands feeling the same thing.’ They had lost, to use Gilbert Enoka’s phrase, ‘the being of team’. There was a strong case for change.

Next, the team required a Compelling Picture of the Future. In the next chapter we look at the role of purpose and personal meaning, and how a three-day crisis meeting set the framework that would culminate in Rugby World Cup victory.

First, though, there needed to be a clear strategy for change. This was articulated by Graham Henry (as reported in Final Word and repeated in interviews) as the creation of ‘an environment . . . that would stimulate the players and make them want to take part in it’. Henry realised that the world was changing and the All Blacks, like any other business – ‘and it is a business’ – were competing on the open market for the best human resources. He reasoned that an active focus on personal development and leadership would create capacity, capability and loyalty.

Third, the team required the right Sustained Capability to Change. This meant eliminating players who were seen as hindering the chance for change and, more importantly, building the capability of those who remained and those who joined. This centred on a ‘dual-management’ model in which responsibility was ‘handed over’ to the players so that they had, in Henry’s phrase, ‘more skin in the game’.

It also involved – and this is where Henry the educator excelled – the creation of a learning environment, which acted as a stepladder of personal and professional development. The creation of a ‘Leadership Group’ as well as ‘Individual Operating Units’ in which players took increasing responsibility for team protocols, principles and culture, gave structure to this strategy. Captain Richie McCaw believes it to be the most important innovation of Henry’s reign.

Leaders create leaders.

Fourth, the team required a Credible Plan to Execute. In this the leadership, with their unique shared structure, excelled. Steered by Henry, the men were able to develop and deploy a self-reflective, self-adjusting plan that developed the technical, tactical, physical, logistical and psychological capabilities of their collective.

The plan traversed years, seasons, series, weeks, days and even the seconds the match clock travelled as it counted down to the final whistle. It was a plan executed in public on the field of play, but calibrated behind the scenes, and which led to the most successful period of All Blacks rugby in history.

And a small gold cup.


We shouldn’t be too surprised that the All Blacks culture had begun to rot from the inside. Unless intervention occurs, all organizational cultures do. The Court Sessions, a hangover from the days of amateurism and a by-product of New Zealand’s wider binge drinking culture, were merely a symptom of a more general and inevitable process, described in graphic form by the Sigmoid Curve.

Though it is tempting to see life, business, society and success as part of a linear progression of constant and neverending refinement and growth, the opposite is true. Like most things in nature, cultures are subject to a more cyclical process, of ebb and flow, growth and decline. According to Charles Handy (in The Empty Raincoat), this cycle has three distinct phases: Learning, Growth and Decline.

In the Learning Phase, we often experience dips in actual performance as we feel our way through the unfamiliar. Think of Tiger Woods relearning his golf swing or the teething period in which a new CEO gets to grips with the issues of an organization.

Then once the learning has become embedded and momentum builds, so growth accelerates. This is the Growth Phase. Rewards follow. Praise and blandishments too. Soon we’re on top of the game and on top of the world. We’re invincible, our success assured. And so begins the Fall.

The Decline Phase hits us much like the early twinges of arthritis in a middle-aged person. At first an anomaly, it eventually becomes the painful norm. Soon we’re staring at the hollowed-out cheeks of an old person in the mirror, wondering whatever happened to our gilded youth.

The key, of course, is when we’re on top of our game, to change our game; to exit relationships, recruit new talent, alter tactics, reassess strategy. To make what Handy describes as ‘Sigmoid leaps’, a series of scalloped jumps along the Sigmoid Curve, outwitting inevitability.

As a leader this is one of our primary responsibilities, and the skill comes in timing these leaps: when to axe your star performer; when to blood new talent; when to change your game-plan altogether. As the Encyclopedia of Leadership asks:

— What steps do you need to consider taking so you can prepare for the second curve, without prematurely leaving your current success (on the first curve) behind?

This is the quintessence of kaizan, the Japanese notion of continuous improvement. ‘The idea,’ writes Bunji Tozawa, in a professional white paper, ‘is to nurture the company’s human resources.’ Originally, kaizan was less a productivity enhancer than a ‘culture creator’, a way in which Japanese business could engage and inspire their workforce – to, in Graham Henry’s strategic statement, ‘stimulate the players and make them want to take part in it’.


The military have an acronym: VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. VUCA describes a world prone to sudden change, unknown consequence and complex, shifting interrelationships; one that is difficult to decipher, impossible to predict.

For the military-industrial complex, VUCA means asymmetric warfare, geopolitical instability and unreliable loyalties. For business, it means structural collapse, credit crises, reputation damage. For individuals, it represents career insecurity, rising prices, housing market illiquidity and an uncertain future.

For leaders, it means dealing with decisions that involve incomplete knowledge, sketchy resources and the vicissitudes of human nature.

In his seminal paper ‘Destruction and Creation’, the military strategist John R. Boyd created a theory with direct applicability to a fast-changing environment. ‘To maintain an accurate or effective grasp of reality,’ he argued, ‘one must undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with the environment to assess its constant changes.’ He asked himself, ‘how do we create the mental concepts to support decision making activity?’

His answer was the Decision Cycle or OODA Loop.

OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. It is quick to apply, and useful for everyday decision-making.

This is data collection through the senses; visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, taste – as well as more modern metrics. Like an animal sniffing the wind, we gather the raw material for response.

This is analysis, synthesizing all available data into a single, coherent ‘map of the territory’ – a working theory of our options.

This is the point of choice; where we determine the best course of action. We cut away the extraneous by making a decision.

We execute; acting swiftly and decisively to take advantage of the moment. We then go back to the beginning and observe the effect of our actions. And so the loop continues.

Boyd’s analysis of dogfights over Korea had shown that the pilots who got inside the OODA loop first were those who survived. To prevail in conflict, Boyd says, we ‘must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself begins to change’.

Boyd’s theories are remarkably similar to those of Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov, a Russian general born in 1719 who wrote the military manual The Science of Victory. He believed in:

Hystrota        playing a fast-paced game
Glazometer  making quick decisions that disorient the opposition
Natisk           acting aggressively to seize the competitive advantage

That is, move rapidly into a commanding position, assess your unfolding options quickly and clearly, attack with absolute and ruthless commitment – assess, adjust and repeat.
Or as the All Blacks would put it:

— Go for the gap.

For Boyd, Suvorov and the All Blacks, adaptation is not a reaction, but a systematic series of actions. It isn’t just reacting to what’s happening in the moment, it is being the agent of change. This is achieved through a structured feedback loop – by building the adaptive process into the very way we lead.

How does this work in practice? Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, talks about 100-day plans:

— Getting started is deceptively simple. First list around 10 things you need to achieve over the next 100 days. Start each plan with an Action Verb and use no more than 3 words each. Make sure each action is measurable and that each one is a stretch. You’ll know when something is a real stretch and when you’re just creating a list with things you can tick off. Review your list every Friday morning. When the 100 Days comes round, the goal is to have each item checked off. All you need to do then is get a sheet of A4 paper and get started.

Whereas once 50 per cent of his time was spent on assessment, he explains, and 20 per cent on execution, today all information is instantaneous. Consequently 70 per cent of his time – and that of the company’s other leaders – is now spent on execution.

A committed All Blacks fan, Roberts, who was born in Britain and made his home in New Zealand, was instrumental as head of Saatchi & Saatchi Wellington in developing the All Blacks’ brand in the professional era. When asked what he’s learned from the All Blacks and how they inspire him, he answers:

‘It’s about going for the gap.’

It’s about adapting quickly to change by creating an adaptive culture.


In 2004, the All Blacks faced a precipice.

With results declining, key players threatening to leave and cultural dysfunction endemic, the management had to act and act quickly. In his report to New Zealand Rugby Union at the end of that year (as recounted in Bob Howitt’s Final Word), Graham Henry identified his key areas of focus:

• Sufficient leadership, knowledge and confidence to implement the game plan
• The transference of leadership and therefore responsibility from the coaches to the players
• The development of leadership ability and composure
• The necessity for the group to understand their identity – who they are, what they stand for, and their collective and individual responsibilities as All Blacks

The following chapters outline the actions the leadership took to turn their vision into action – and the 15 key lessons we can learn and apply to our own particular field of play.

So that we too can go for the gap.


Go for the Gap

Momentum swings faster than we think. One moment we’re on top of the world, the next falling off the other side. The role of the leader is to know when to reinvent, and how to do it.

The Sigmoid Curve means that when we’re at the top of the game, it’s time to change our game. The key is not losing momentum. As the military have discovered, the best form of attack is a continuous feedback loop and, as we know from kaizan, this process is best when it involves your people.

The teams that will thrive in this VUCA world are those who act quickly and decisively to seize competitive advantage; adjusting and readjusting along the way. You either adapt, or you lose; and sustainable competitive advantage is achieved by the development of a continuously self-adjusting culture. Adaption is not a reaction, but continual action, so plan to respond.

This is an edited extract from Legacy: 15 Lessons in Leadership by James Kerr, published by Constable & Robinson, RRP $29.99, available now.

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