11 Bok leadership lessons the world needs now


11 Bok leadership lessons the world needs now

Her dream, says the leadership guru Louise van Rhyn, is that Africa is seen as a contributor to new theories about leadership, rather than the recipient of theories from the Global North. The lessons we can take from the Springboks do exactly that. They epitomise the kind of leadership South Africa, and the rest of the world, needs now, she tells ANNELIESE BURGESS.


FOR the past 30 years, Louise van Rhyn has immersed herself in change management, leadership and organisational development. She is an internationally recognised expert in the field of complex social change.

She says it has always frustrated her that the field of leadership is so focused on northern hemisphere thinking. “The answers always seem to come from London and Boston,” she says.

“For three decades, I have been saying that Africa has something unique to offer the world because there is something very special in the way we lead and find solutions to complex challenges.”

And with the leadership lessons of this Springbok squad, we have the opportunity to do that.

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#1 The synergy from ‘Stronger Together’

The old way of thinking about leadership is that there is one big man in charge who takes the lead and tells everyone what to do.

But what this team does is different. They recognise that every player has a unique contribution to make.

In this squad of 33 players, every player was able to make their best contribution. It was not about individual strong players but about what they could do together — the synergy that was created thanks to the way they cooperated in their diversity.

You never saw any selfishness from a Springbok player during the World Cup.

#2 Everyone is a leader

Traditionally, macho South Africans believe a leader should know the way and show the way.

In this Bok team, no one seems to be the “big leader” who “knows everything”. The leaders have created an environment where each team member can make their best contribution. They are acutely aware of each other. They care about each other. They listen to each other.

We could write a whole book about the leadership shown by Rassie, Jacques and Siya. And then about the leadership shown by the individual players who, thanks to this triumvirate’s leadership, were empowered to take the lead in their own way.

I watched them on the field: Handré comes up and takes strong leadership, then Faf, then Bongi… they each played a leadership role, even though they may not have had formal leadership titles. They each led from their position and when they needed to fill a gap elsewhere, they did that too.

No doubt the coaches had strong ideas and opinions, but they were clearly receptive to the input of others. When the coaches made a call, the players accepted it 100% because they knew that the coaches had their backs.

So, when Manie was taken off the field or left out of the team for the final game, for example — because the game required a different type of player — no one complained or was angry, because it was never about the individual; it’s about the team.

Louise van Rhyn.
Louise van Rhyn.

#3 Purpose-driven: ‘For South Africa’

The team was 100% purpose-focused.

They said from the start that they wanted to win for their country. That it wasn’t about them but about 62 million people. They were 100% invested to achieve their goal: to bring the Web Ellis trophy home. They were giving their everything — for South Africa! It gives you extra oomph when you have that type of focus.

We saw it in the Tests against France and England. They just didn’t give up. In leadership, we speak of “grit”. It is one of the most important qualities you can have. This team exemplifies grit and tenacity.

For me, there is also another element: the complexity of our South African reality gives us a kind of edge. Some of our guys have built up grit, courage and the ability to persevere because of the difficult road they’ve had to walk.

There is no doubt that if you compare the life of someone who had a comfortable upbringing to the path that Siya had to walk, Siya will have a stronger foundation to overcome challenges. That is something someone like Tom Curry will never be able to understand: that extra determination and dogged attitude that becomes part of you when you’ve had to persevere against so many odds.

#4 Servant leadership and humility

Rassie and Jacques give new meaning to the term servant leadership.

I look at the photo of the president standing on the stage next to Siya with the trophy. Rassie and Jacques stood in the back corner because it’s not about them. One sees it over and over again. When they arrive at the airport, someone pushes the cup into Rassie’s hands and his first reaction is to give it back to the players.

He said from the beginning that it was not about him, that his role was that of a servant leader so the team could make their best and most beautiful music.

Servant leadership, in big, bold letters. And they understand the importance of humility. Siya exudes humility in every way he acts.

#5 Compassion

Another lesson is the role of leaders who show compassion. The definition of compassion is when someone is seen, heard and loved. What happens in our brain when we are made to feel this way? Our limbic system is calmed while our prefrontal cortex is activated. And that allows us to act outside of fight or flight mode.

We heard Siya say how much it meant to them to know that Jacques and Rassie cared for the players as individuals, not just as rugby players.

We also saw this from Siya. He genuinely cares. We were all so touched when we saw him running to embrace Cheslin at the end of the game. The message to Cheslin was clear: “I see you. You belong here. I care about you!”

When people say to me Nelson Mandela was so charismatic, and I ask them what they mean by that, the answer is usually that, in the moment, he made people feel as if they were the only ones who mattered.

That’s what Siya does. Siya knows it’s about how we make people feel. And how he makes himself available and is present impacts how people think about themselves. And when you do that, you look at people with soft eyes, not with a critical, hard, macho gaze.

#6 Machismo is so yesterday

This team are so in touch with each other, so emotional, so vulnerable. They have shown us a new type of masculinity.

At the last press conference, Siya said one of the best things Jacques and the management did was to let the players’ wives and children accompany them to the World Cup. He spoke about how 20 children were running around the hotel, and every day it felt as if it was a home for them.

Where have you heard leaders say, “to let our team do their best work, we will take their wives and children on a seven-week trip”?

That is a lesson in leadership. They are saying to the players that they see them in their wholeness. As fathers, as husbands, as players.

#7 Authenticity

We teach leaders how important it is for them to be authentic as this contributes to psychological safety in the workplace. We know that you can’t be authentic if you are not prepared to be vulnerable. And these guys showed that in their actions. They care deeply. And we all know it because they share their hearts with us.

Rassie’s tears — how many people didn’t tell me how deeply that touched them? We saw Rassie cry at the end of the game and again when they arrived at the airport. This is the kind of leader that the world needs — someone willing to care so much and who are comfortable to show their emotions in response to a significant moment.

#8 Inclusivity and belonging

There was a real commitment to allowing everyone to shine.

Inclusive leadership says everyone is part of a team — they belong in this team. No one works on their own. And we recognise everyone for their contribution and the role they play.

Marx and Mapimpi… they were part of the team. They couldn’t play because they were injured, but they were part of the team. And Handrè Pollard — he wasn’t selected at first, but when he got there he just slotted in because the message was “you are part of us”.

So, for me, this is one of the great leadership lessons of the team. We see how the leaders understand inclusiveness in every possible way. Siya talked about their commitment to “mind each other” — to be conscious and respectful of their difference with a commitment to ensure that every player knew that they belonged in this team.

#9 Invest in relationships

We often talk about Daniel Kim’s “core theory of success”. Kim was one of these big-systems thinkers, and he said if we want good results, we have to have good performance. To achieve good performance, we need to make sure we can think together. And to think well together, we need to invest in our relationships.

The relationship between Rassie and Jacques is essential. They have known each other since their army days and have come a long way together. It is clear to all that they have invested in their relationship.

But the feeling I got from the whole team is that they put a lot of effort into building strong relationships with each other. There is absolute trust in each other, and they are committed to treating each other respectfully. No one ever acted in a way that would make another guy look bad. There is tremendous power in making each other look good, standing together and giving each other opportunities to shine.

#10 Representivity

There is not a single South African who does not feel they are represented by this team — whether you are white or black or live in a city or a township.

And what happens when people are so absolutely committed is that the focus shifts away from black and white and the negative because that’s not what’s important anymore. What becomes important is the performance, and we don’t worry if they are black or white.

The players who were selected to be part of the squad all knew they were there on merit. No one thought they were there as a quota player. They were the best players in our country, and they were willing to play their hearts out and work incredibly hard. And that combination of discipline and performance, where everyone is 100% committed, not as individuals, but as part of a bigger picture … that’s where genius lies.

#11 No knight in shining armour

This team did not wait for permission to lead.

They stood up every day and said: we will make this thing work. Every member of the coaching staff and team made a commitment to lead — from their position — because they cared and were committed to achieve their vision.

In South Africa, for too long, we have left the future of our country in the hands of politicians and waited for someone else to create a better future for us.

What this team has shown us is what one can achieve despite a difficult environment. What happens when a group of people decide: well, we’re going to do it; we’re not going to wait for some strong leader, some knight in shining armour to come and lead us. We will take control of our future and find a way to create the future we are committed to.

♦ VWB ♦

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