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#47 What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, with James Kerr, Part 1

Proudly brought to you in association with S A Partners, a world-leading business transformation consultancy.

Summary Keywords

culture, create, leadership, book, James, frontline, leaders, idea, great, blacks, business, good, team, environment, talk, people, sport, climate, called, organisations.


Welcome to Episode 47 of the enterprise excellence podcast. Many of you know my belief that excellence in sport is not far different to business. Today's guest has studied and proven this. It is such a pleasure to have Mr James Kerr, the author of "Legacy" on the show with us today. "Legacy, What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life" is one of the best books I've ever read. James is an author, speaker, and leadership expert who helps create high-performance cultures for elite teams and organisations. Let's get into the episode. James, thank you so much for joining us today.

What led you to write a book about one of the greatest all-black teams of all time?

Although he has lived in London now for 30 something years, James is a kiwi but will always call New Zealand home. And, of course, the epitome of being in New Zealand is the All Blacks. So clearly, it was a lot of fascination from a young age about what makes this extraordinary outfit tick.

His background started in advertising as a writer, using storytelling to help define a culture or the essence or purpose of something. Then his line of work moved to a brand consultant and then into culture change within larger organisations. He saw the connection. Legacy is a case study of much of that learning from different domains, seen through the prism of an extraordinary team - the All Blacks - arguably the most successful sporting outfit of all time.

They had some challenging times leading up to what James refers to as the reboot. James embedded with the All Blacks for a month in 2010/2009. During that time, they lost every game they played against the Springboks. And it wasn't a culture that was in great shape. Some strong individuals dominated it, and they were starting to get the tag of chokers - the best team in the world between World Cups. James was interested in that process of how you take something that's intrinsically strong and improve it.

At that point, the new management Gang of Four, led by Graham Henry, took a long, hard look at the culture and looked to reboot it. The results have spoken for themselves in terms of their approach. James saw parallels with great teams he'd seen in other domains.

Highly functioning teams

Great teams are:

  • cohesive,

  • coherent,

  • flat in their hierarchy,

  • team first environments,

  • contributing to the team's legacy,

  • are clear in their values-based vision led purpose-driven behaviour,

  • clarity of vision,

  • authentic and have great psychological safety,

  • compassionate and caring, and

  • know why they matter.

James discusses these attributes through the eyes of All Blacks', the Gurkha and the navy seals.

And in terms of businesses, well, a lot of companies don't run like this. The majority are very transactional, very hierarchical, very factional, very political. They're the antithesis of what makes a great team.

High-performance culture

Culture is cellular. It clusters into small groups. Visualise 30 odd people - in the warrior band, or a sales department, or a small business in its ambitious startup phase before it's hit its straps. These successful small groups tend to model meaningful behaviours. When groups get too big, or they scale or get run in the wrong way, they tend to lose that way.

James agrees with Stan McChrystal in that good businesses are teams of teams. And if you can impact one team and create an excellent team culture, then replicate that to all business teams, you can help a large organisation lift their game. He has seen it done well, in some organisations, but in some organisations poorly. James is interested in making a better world of work and understanding what great looks like, and isolating some of those principles that leaders can apply in their own practice.

In a way, culture works powerfully to impact everything. You can only make so many phone calls a day. You can only knock on so many doors a day. It's the synergies between people, the cohesion, the clarity of effort, the focus, the resilience, the ability to have good coaches to attract and retain talent to stay up late and order and pizza. It's getting all of those intangibles, marginal gains if you like, and connecting them up as a force multiplier that can create a competitive advantage.

The killer ideas within Legacy

Leaders create leaders.

Everyone is a leader, and leadership happens at every level. In great cultures, leaders are highly accountable, but everybody feels responsible for the result.

And if you take a mission command model, the leader's job is to set the end state, the impact they want to have, the vision, the what and the why. And then hand it over to the subordinates to figure out the how, to be responsive to the conditions on the frontline. Militarily, they talk about the strategic corporal, the thinking soldier. That principle applies to a highly energised, responsive and agile organisation. People know what's required, see the end state, commit to delivering it, trust, make good decisions and have a sense of autonomy. They get to be better and grow as human beings and as leaders.

Leadership is cultivating the conditions where others can grow.

Cicero, back in Rome, really coined the phrase or made the distinction that culture is creating the conditions for people to grow. So leadership is about cultivating the conditions in which other human beings grow and perform at their best; that's culture. James speaks about culture, but also about the high performing environment and climate. How do we create the climate around ourselves? It begins with leading from within; you have to have awareness and sensibility and be prepared to challenge yourself.

Leaders can transform themselves.

James doesn't think the transformation within the All Blacks environment would have been possible without the transformation of the people at the top.

James speaks about Graham Henry, the then coach of the All Blacks as a headmaster. He was a lovely man, but it was his way or the highway for a long time. And throughout his career, as he matured, he understood that it was not about him being in charge. It was about him charging his followers and giving them an energetic transfer. He (Graham Henry) turned upside down. That personal transformation enabled the team to go from quite a hierarchical group, dysfunctional, into being genuinely inclusive.

Top-level teams act with care and love.

James goes even further to say that teams at the top level are fuelled by love. Through brotherhood, fraternity, sisterhood, connection, a sense of caring for each other and playing for each other.

And that goes back to the Spartan shield, the idea that the Spartans would fight with a sword and short shield. And if they lost that sword in battle, that wasn't a problem. But the shield was for their mates, protecting the whole formation. In the military, they say you don't fight for Queen and country; you fight for the bloke in the foxhole beside you.

So creating that kind of climate, where people grow and can feel free to play at their best. They're free of fear. If there is punishment, it's for sins of omission. It's for not going for it or having a go. It creates an entirely different dynamic within a group. They are risk-averse vs being entrepreneurial and enterprising. Everybody can have an impact on those around them.

Getting culture off the walls and onto the floors.

Culture can be a very abstract set of values written on a wall or a mission statement on a website. And if that's not reflected, in a classroom, in a meeting room, or a team, culture means nothing.

It's just words on the wall. And it's taking the walls from the words from the wall and getting them on the floor. Getting those values and living them out loud and creating the space for people to be the best they can be. Being a resource for people to grow and develop has got to be the pinnacle of leadership.

Beyond professionally, into anthropological thinking.

Leaders tend to have a few grey hairs or be moving in that general direction. Anthropologically, as soon as we start to get near our 40s on one side or the other.

Think of the tribal elder. What's the role of a tribal elder?

  • is to hand over the wisdom tribe,

  • train up the next generation,

  • be a protector, and

  • create the environments where the capacity and capability of the tribe can develop for the good of all.

James thinks that it's evolutionary, in a sense, about that mode of thinking or model of leadership.

Leaders at the frontline

Creating leadership and capability in your frontline creates empowerment, accountability, and motivation that drives the team. From the bottom up, leaders with agility, flexibility and reality too. How many initiatives don't work because the people who are supposed to implement them go, "This is crazy. What are we doing?" Or, this is the next fad. Or it's a great team on paper, but they have to play on grass.

It's better to empower or create a process in which those dealing with frontline issues can respond to frontline issues. That's contextual leadership, right on the spot on the front line, where it matters, or in the back office, where it matters. It doesn't matter where it exists.

There's a phrase around sport, a CEO in every position. People are deciding to engage or not engage. How many customers get lost to that decision at a retail level? Think about anybody in any branch with a direct line to the CEO? If there is a problem, they call the CEO. There are hotel groups that provide a discretionary budget to solve their guests' issues face to face. You, the frontline, have power, are trusted, are problem solvers, and face customers, and we (leadership) back you to make good decisions. That's gold.

Poor leadership

Anyone who thinks well, leadership is me and those other guys and girls, who started with me - we are the brains trust, and we know everything. That's a very blinkered and narrow approach to leadership. It's very transactional, very hierarchical, and it's not very effective. You need extraordinarily robust processes in place to bring that human ability back, to be able to respond - to play the ball.

James thinks it is a vital part of the paradigm that the model is getting into every level.

Lack of recognised models for empowerment.

People might say, let's create an empowerment culture. What does that mean? How do you do that? And most people go well, empowerment is? I don't know; I'm going to ask them what they think occasionally? There are no methods; there's no methodology.

The military use mission command, which is if you break down the key elements, it's about having the right DNA. It's about selecting the right people and training them, but also resourcing them. Giving them that 50 bucks, they can spend on a bunch of flowers to say, "Sorry". And it's about communicating in a certain way and setting the big picture, the commander's intent, and then asking your subordinates how they're going to do it. What do you reckon? How should we do this? Because empowerment is people executing a plan they've been a part of plan of making. And then you don't micromanage. You look at some small moments here and there. You keep an eye on things because otherwise, you take away all of that autonomy that you've created.

Self-determination theory out of Australia.

Self-determination theory talks about autonomy or mastery, autonomy and relatedness in a humanistic stance. That good people want to be good at what they do. They want to achieve mastery; there's a sort of sense of self-determination that's fundamental to them. No one wants to go against their own values now more than ever. They want relatedness. They want to be connected with the people they work for, for a cause that matters.

Empower the frontline! What do you reckon? You're the frontline, you tell us. And if we think that this holds together, we will resource it, and we will make it happen. That's the kind of leadership we all want. We don't want it all decided in a nice 17th floor of a skyscraper with nice comfy seats and an expensive Italian table and everyone sitting around with PowerPoints deciding what will happen at the front line. That never worked. There's going to be an organ transplant, and the body's going to reject it.


04:28min So I was really interested in that process of how you take something that's intrinsically strong. You know, clearly, even at 2004, they had the world's best sporting stat. That was about 75% of all encounters over about 110 years at that point thereabouts. You know, an incredible stat already, but not always well. And the new management led by Graham Henry, the kind of the three wise men are the Gang of Four, it's been called in different ways. This leadership group, took a long, hard look at the culture and really looked to reboot it. And you know, the results have spoken for themselves in terms of their


07:33min Again, that idea of lineage is extraordinarily powerful. And that's just sort of one of the ideas. Other things around their learning environments, their place is committed to getting better every day. They're values-based vision-led purpose-driven groups. You know, they know what they stand for, and they know what they don't, and they live those values out loud. They're focused on character. And I'm doing it again, militarily doing the right thing on a difficult day. They have clarity of vision; they know where they're going. And they've asked the deepest question of all why, why does it matter? You know, there's a purpose, purpose beyond results.

28:48min How shall we do this? Because empowerment is people executing a plan, they've been a part of making. Really. And then and then what in mission command gets called the sort of directed telescope, you don't micromanage. You just look at some small moments here and there, you keep an eye on things, but you don't kind of get right into the micromanagement. Because otherwise, you take away all of that autonomy that you that you've created.


Brad Jeavons:

Brad is proud to support many Australian businesses. You can find him on LinkedIn here. If you’d like to speak to him about how he can help your business, call him on 0402 448 445, or email Our website is

James Kerr:

Book: Legacy, 15 Lessons In Leadership - What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life.

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