Age old leadership lessons from the All Blacks


There is a lot of literature about leadership. And as with many business topics, the Lindy effect applies. What was wisdom for thousands of years, still is. Leadership has been applied for as long as we exist. Particularly in the military and sports.

Sport and leadership

Sports is increasingly used in business books, for example, “The captain class” and there have been many business books taken lessons from the military. The ones that stand out for me:


“Legacy” by James Kerr, is about leadership in the All Blacks. One of the most impressive sports team in the world. The book is an absolute cracker. Full of age-old wisdom. Mental and physical fitness are a given. Other key traits of a leader are:

  • Humility as a strength. Serving leadership.
  • Personal discipline. Personal leadership as an attitude.
  • Character. Character is vital to success. No assholes allowed. Character (who you are) supersedes reputation (what others think you are) and talent (talent is overrated). The sum of the characters make a team. A collection of talented individuals without personal discipline will ultimately and inevitably fail. Character triumphs over talent. Winning takes talent. To repeat it takes character.
  • Self-awareness. Only by knowing yourself can you become an effective leader. With a fundamental understanding and appreciation of your own personal values. From self-knowledge, you develop character and integrity.
    Integrity. Integrity is a factor of production as important as knowledge or technology. To the degree that integrity is diminished, the opportunity for performance is diminished. If we speak with integrity, our word becomes our world; a commitment, a declaration of intent, a generative force.
  • Continues improvement. 70% doing. Applying Kaizen. Managing the Sigmoid Curve (when you are at the top of the game, its time to change our game). Adaption is not a reaction, but continual action, so plan to respond.
  • Legacy driven. What you leave behind after you have gone? Did you leave the jersey in a better place? You are but a speck in the moment of time situated between two eternities, the past and the future. Be a good ancestor. True leaders are stewards of the future.
  • Focus. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on, but that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that are there. You have got to pick carefully.
  • Accountability. When everyone in a team does exactly what they say they will do, clarity, certainty, productivity and momentum are the results.
  • Authenticity. Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart and feet, thinking, saying and doing the same thing consistently. This builds trust, and followers love leaders they can trust. Marry the self, the environment, the culture, the rituals and the legacy. The essence of a great leader is about being genuine, real and true to who you are. The best leaders remain true to their deepest values. They lead their own lives, and others follow.
  • Sacrifice. A primary All Blacks myth is the idea of sacrifice. Find something you would die for and give your life to it. First, ask what do I have to offer the team? Second, what are you prepared to sacrifice? You are part of something far bigger. It is good to remember there are a lot of people who have made far greater sacrifices.

The Lindy effect

These are very old words and concepts. Forget all the fads. As asked in “The captain class”. The question is; would your staff pick you as their captain? If not, you have a problem. If you are a hippo or an asshole, you cannot be a good leader.


It starts with pride. Everybody wants to be an All Black. It stands for something. The black jersey is a sacred object. How does your staff feel about wearing the company shirt and being part of the team?

Reinventing the All Blacks

The book tells the story of the journey from 2011 when they reinvented (re-discovered) the All Blacks. 2011 began with some fundamental questions: What is the meaning of being an All Black? What does it mean to be a New Zealander? These questions and an ongoing interrogative process were central in the re-establishment of a values-driven, driven, purpose-driven culture.


The emotional glue of any culture, religion, nation or team, is its sense of identity and purpose, Leaders connect personal meaning to a higher purpose to create belief and a sense of direction.  Humans, by their nature, seek purpose, a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. The most convincing arguments for his theories are the simplest to understand: ‘We leave well-paying jobs for purpose-driven ones.’ ‘We volunteer.’ ‘We have children!’

Purpose maximisation

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. Purpose maximisation is now taking its place alongside profit maximisation as an aspiration and a guiding principle for businesses around the world. Emotional reward is more important than material compensation. That intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation rules the world. We are all “Zeronauts”. It is the ‘extra dimension’, a guiding philosophy that consists of core values and a core purpose beyond just making money.
If you want higher performance, begin with a higher purpose. Begin by asking, ‘Why?’ What does it mean to be part of your company?

Create a collective mindset

Leaders who harness the power of purpose can galvanise a group, aligning its behaviours to the strategic pillars of the enterprise. Using vivid storytelling techniques, including themes, symbols, imagery, rituals, mantras and metaphor, and bringing them to life with imagination and flair, leaders create a sense of inclusion, connectedness and unity. A truly collective, collaborative mindset.


Full of fantastic quotes:

  • “He who has a why to live for can bear almost anything.”
  • “Martin Luther King ‘gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech . . .”
  • “Reason leads to conclusions, and emotion leads to action.”
  • “Self-actualisation is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
  • “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
  • “Better people, make better All-Blacks.”
  • “Vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”
  • “The person with a narrow vision sees a narrow horizon, the person with a wide vision sees a wide horizon.”
  • “Leaders are teachers.”
  • “Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence only in constant improvement and constant change.”
  • “You can’t fire a cannon out of a canoe.”
  • “The definition of a great team is one that is in flow more frequently than the opposition.” Read “Stealing fire
  • “On a good team, there are no superstars.”
  • “The strength of the wolf is the pack.”
  • “The way the sapling is shaped determines how the tree grows.”
  • “The fight is won or lost, far away from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, well before I dance under the lights.”
  • “The stool isn’t balanced unless you have psychological strength as well.”
  • “Pressure is expectation, scrutiny and consequence.”
  • “Football is a game played for 90 minutes, and at the end, Germany wins
  • “First, honesty and then, integrity.”
  • “If you’re not early for a meeting, you’re late.”
  • “We don’t get a chance to do that many things and everyone should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die.”
  • “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never see.”


The All Blacks’ remarkable success on the field begins with a very particular culture off the field, and it is this culture, the glue that holds it all together that has delivered an extraordinary competitive advantage for more than a century. To become an All Black means becoming a steward of a cultural legacy. Your role is to leave the jersey in a better place. The humility, expectation and responsibility that this brings lift their game. It makes them the best in the world.


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.


To maintain an accurate or effective grasp of reality you must undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with the environment to assess its constant changes. You need to create the mental concepts to support decision-making activity. All Blacks apply OODA, Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. So do the Navy SEALs.

The leadership lessons

  • The being of a team begins from inside. High standards must come from within. Leadership works best when your team takes the lead.
    Find a captain for the team.
  • Create leaders by passing on responsibility, creating ownership, accountability and trust.
  • Create a language. Language is pivotal to winning, language sets the mental and the physical frame for victory. Invent a unique vocabulary as shorthand for communicating new cultural norms and standards, using specific words, phrases, mottos and mantras. Read “Fusion“.
  • Be clear about the commander’s intent. Apply extreme ownership. Once intent is understood, decisions must be devolved to the lowest possible level to allow these front-line soldiers to exploit the opportunities that develop. By arming staff with intention, leaders can enable their people to respond appropriately to changing context, without losing sight of the tactical imperative.
  • Develop autonomous, critical thinkers able to Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, and adjust their actions on the run.
  • Facilitate an adaptive environment, enabling good decision making under pressure.
  • Create flexible leadership groups – developing individuals who can step in with clarity, certainty and autonomy.
  • Create a sense of ‘ownership’ within the team; building trust and a common understanding.
  • Create a decision framework; marking out roles, responsibilities and response, so decision-making is intuitive, instantaneous and delivers on intention.
  • Created a ‘Train to Win’ system – preparing the team under pressure using randomised problem-solving techniques, active questioning and high-intensity training to prepare them for the heat of competition.
  • Focused on an understanding of how the brain reacts to stress to provide the tools to help players stay present, connected, clear and accurate in order to make better decisions under pressure.
  • Garbage In/Garbage Out. Key to a high-performing learning environment is the quality of the material that is allowed to enter your brain. Be curious and innovative when it comes to seeking out stimuli, knowledge and insights from other people and organisations. Successful leaders look beyond their own field to discover new approaches, learn best practices and push the margins. Then they pass on what they have learned.

The lesson about structure

Alfred Chandler, the Pulitzer Prize business historian, once wrote that ‘structure follows strategy’. I agree. You can have all the will in the world, but without the right structure in place, your strategy won’t be successful. Moreover, the wrong structure will deliver, de facto, the wrong strategy. Enlightened leadership promotes a structured system for the development of the team, combined with a tailored map for the development of the individual.

Perspective on failure

It should be the fear of not doing it properly. It makes you prepare properly. All successful teams, whether it be in business or sport, are the ones who prepare properly and are the ones that normally win. People get scared by the phrase fear of failure because they think it inhibits their performance. If you’re actually honest with yourself, you can use that as a motivating factor. To prepare well and not the night before, you know, the [business] pitches that fail are the ones where the people are up at 3 o’clock in the morning preparing. A strong dislike of not being good enough is healthy. The standard you measure yourself against is high. The debriefing in the All Blacks is fairly brutal, not in an aggressive way but in that the team measure their own standards against much higher standards than are measured externally.


Practise with intensity to develop the mindset to win. Replicate playing conditions. It conditions the brain and body to perform under pressure. It lets peak performance become automatic. It develops the mindset to win. Effective training is intense, regular and repetitious. For world-class results, it should be central to the culture. Intensity training isn’t new. Military organisations have enjoyed its benefits for millennia; from Spartan regimes in Ancient or the Navy SEALs, Green Berets, SAS, etc.

Mental training

Focus on a programme of training for mental toughness. The point is to give your mental performance what Neuro-Linguistic Programming calls ‘unconscious competence’, and what the All Blacks call ‘clarity’. It’s not far from the idea of thinking for yourself. The idea of autonomy and self-responsibility implied by the phrase ‘Better People Make Better All Blacks’. By training with intensity, you make your performance more automatic, better able to stay on task.

Dealing with pressure

Bad decisions are not made through a lack of skill or innate judgement: they are made because of an inability to handle pressure at the pivotal moment. Like meditation, it begins with the breath: Breathing slowly and deliberately. Shift your attention to something external, the ground or your feet, or the ball at hand, or even alternating big toes, or the grandstand. Use deep breaths and keywords to get out of your own head, find an external focus, get yourself “back in the present”, regain your situational awareness. Anchor. Act rather than react.

The importance of storytelling

Developed techniques, rituals and language that connected players to the core; using storytelling in all its forms to create a sense of purpose and intention. Read “Putting stories to work“.  A message, unless it is immediately rejected as a lie, will have the same effect on the associative system regardless of its reliability. Whether the story is true, or believable, matters little, if at all. If you can conceive, and believe, you can achieve. Visualise to actualise. You can sing your world into existence.


The truth is that the story we tell about our life becomes the story of our life. The narrative we tell our team, business, brand, organisation or family becomes the story others eventually tell about us. Based on strong, resonant values, using a common language that employs mantras, mottos and metaphors, storytelling helps leaders connect their people’s personal meaning to their vision of the future.


The Ancient Egyptians believed that the seat of the soul is our tongue. From ancient theology to contemporary psychology, our words shape our story, and this story becomes the framework for our behaviours; and our behaviours determine the way we lead our life and the way we run our organisations. The truth is, we don’t so much tell stories, as stories tell us. Our narratives frame and structure our lives, becoming the prism through which we perceive and live.


Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.


We learn best and change, from hearing stories that strike a chord with us. Because of the limbic, a nerve centre buried deep within the pre-linguistic core of our brain, the way we feel about something is more important than what we think about it. That, when given a choice, we follow our gut. Those in leadership positions who fail to grasp or use the power of stories risk failure for their companies or for themselves. The language we use embeds itself and becomes action, so it is critical to respect it, shape it and deploy it strategically.

Sing the world into existence

Inspiring leaders use bold, even unrealistic goals to lift their game and the power of storytelling to ‘sing their world into existence’. Leaders are storytellers. All great organisations are born from a compelling story. This central organising thought helps people understand what they stand for and why. The striving to find meaning is the primary motivational force in man and stories are the way we construct and find meaning in our lives.

Oral culture

Leaders tell great, vivid, epic stories of what is possible, to themselves and their teams, and soon the world repeats the story back to them.
Write your company’s book. Create a system of meanings that everyone understood. Create a language and vocabulary and a set of beliefs that bound them up together. Create an oral culture. Create a common story.

The 4 rules

  • The story must be credible and relevant – in Aristotelian poetics, it must have ethos (authority and understanding of the subject) and logos (it must make rational sense).
  • It must be visual and visceral, appealing to the auditory, visual and kinaesthetic receivers in our brains. It must seize our hearts as well as impress our heads. In terms of Aristotelian poetics, it must have pathos (it must be felt).
  • It must be flexible and scalable, as easily told around a campfire as across the boardroom table. This implies the use of simple, everyday language and ideas.
  • It must be useful – able to turn vision into action; purpose into practice – acting as a transferor of meaning between one domain and another, between ‘your’ world and ‘mine’, between the ‘leader’ and the ‘led’.


Think in metaphors. Metaphors are where we recognise ourselves in stories, we attach personal meaning to a more public narrative. They create a visceral response and force us to rethink meaning.

Mantras (or memes)

Translate those into mantras. Mantras are the way in which we can tell our story to ourselves; they are tools for effective thinking, a mental roadmap in times of pressure. The thing many mantras share is the rule of three; that is, they are three words or phrases that work together in a stepwise process to bring about change. The rule of three is also the way humans tell stories; with a beginning, a middle and an end. What are the mantras in your business?


Then ritualise to actualise. Sport, like business and diplomacy, is warfare by other means: a way for a band of ‘warriors’ to ‘fight’ for their side in ‘battle’ against an ‘enemy’. So it’s unsurprising that the All Blacks culture of ritualisation, symbolism and narration is both relevant to business and also reflected in elite combat groups like the US Marine Corps.


Just as the All Blacks with its silver fern, the Marines have their ‘Eagle, Oak and Anchor’. Just as the All Blacks say ‘Once an All Black, always an All Black’, so the Marines say, ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine.’ Just as the All Blacks have the Black Jersey, so the Marines have their Dress Blue. Both the Marines and the All Blacks ‘improvise, adapt and overcome’. Both are the very best at what they do.

Make it real

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. ‘Tell me, and I’ll forget,’ goes the old saying, ‘show me and I may remember; involve me, and I’ll understand.’


The All Blacks use the haka to reconnect with their fundamental purpose, to connect to the core of their culture, to summon their ancestors up from the earth to aid them in their battle, to intimidate the competition, and to bond with one another. By creating their own equivalent of the haka, leaders can attach a sense of personal meaning and belonging to the organisation’s overall purpose. What is your haka?

The life lesson

Think about this. Whether we are giving up an hour, or a day, or a lifetime, we are spending our lives one way or the other. We are giving our lives for it. Every day we go to work, every meeting that bores us, everything we do just for money or out of obligation, all the time we kill, we are giving our life for it. So it better be worthwhile. Wisdom consists of appreciating the preciousness and finiteness of our own existence, and therefore not squandering it. Why be mediocre?

Your funeral

Stephen Covey encouraged us to begin at the end, imagining ourselves at our own funeral. What would our life mean to them? Would they cry? This isn’t morbid, but the opposite. It means putting something at stake – our life. It means a sense of urgency and immediacy, and it is good to have a bit of urgency and immediacy in your life. What is your job on the planet? What is it that needs doing, that you know something about, that probably won’t happen unless you take responsibility for it?’ What is the extra that will make you extraordinary?


Translate those into values. When you choose values, you are choosing to introduce a new form of focus into your life. Embrace it. Read “The subtle art of not giving a f*ck“.  Values cannot be espoused and adopted by us at a conscious level. They are something that we are. Express them in words. For the All Blacks, the words are humility, excellence and respect. Mine are respect, love, joy and purity of intent. What are yours? Create your own Florida Effect, the way that priming works and the effect that the language around us unconsciously affects our experience of the world. Mastermind your own internal linguistic revolution.

We all want to be All Blacks

While better people make better All Blacks, they also make better scientists, CEOs, entrepreneurs, bankers, private equity investors, lawyers, advertising agency executives, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. They make better mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, better teachers, politicians and friends. Together, collectively, incrementally, in a kind of compassionate kaizen, they make for a better world.

Be a Good Ancestor

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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