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Of Boys and Men

Black and white photo of soldiers celebrating victory

I promise this will be the last post (for a while) in relation to the All Blacks. But they just give so many examples of what sets them apart from other teams, be they sporting or business, that makes them the best in the world.

I was watching some of the post-match interviews of the World Cup and almost to a man, every team interviewed talked about ‘the boys’. It was either how much they loved being with the boys, how the boys were taking one match at a time, the occasional comment about the lads too.

Then there was Richie McCaw, the All Black captain, who consistently referred to his teammates as ‘the men’. When I first heard it I did a double-take. What did he just call them? But with each match, there it was…the men this, the men that. And several pieces fell in place.

The All Blacks have long held the mantra that “better people make better All Blacks” and after the debacle that was the 2007 World Cup, when, as the number 1 ranked team in the world they were knocked out in the quarter finals, they embarked on a debrief that concluded, among other things, that when the pressure was applied to them, there were not enough leaders in the team helping the captain (McCaw) make decisions.

In his book Legacy, 15 Lessons in Leadership, author James Kerr talks about how the All Blacks have drawn on the Maori proverb Taringa Whakarongo, Let your ears listen, which underpins the belief that you need to sing your language into existence.

This is not a mantra that is peculiar to this group of men, the military have long used mantras to drive behaviours, and even innovation companies like Apple draw on the importance of language.

On the surface, referring to the team as men rather than boys may not appear to be significant – they’re just words – but I believe it goes much deeper. Having been involved in high level sport, I know how easy it is to just go with the flow. At the elite level, players are given everything. And this includes a daily schedule of exactly what they are doing, when they are doing it and… wait for it… what to wear.

On the field, plays are practiced ad nauseum so you always know where you need to be, what you’re doing when you get there and where you have to be next. Planning is intense and immense. I believe, though, that it was Mike Tyson who once said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.

And that’s exactly the point. Men make decisions. Men are grown up, they’re adults. They’re not a group of boys on a jolly. Much has been made of how Victoria Cross awardee Willie Apiata spent much of the last 2 World Cups as an unofficial member of the All Blacks, even presenting jerseys to the team before the finals.

Former coach Graham Henry talked about the impact of Apiata in his book Final Word, about the mana of the man, but more that this was a person who, in a real life or death situation, had to make decisions – and there’s no more high pressure situation than a life or death one.

Willie Apiata and former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry
Willie Apiata and former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry

Every great military leader talks about leading their men in battle and there is a respect, a deference to the men. A reason why the All Blacks are as successful as they are? Probably a contributing factor, but not one to be dismissed lightly, in my opinion.

To borrow again from Kerr:

Words Start Revolutions.

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