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Strategy lessons from the World Cup final

by Jon Foster-Pedley: Dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.
Now that the William Webb Ellis Cup is safely ensconced with the three replicas at South Africa’s rugby headquarters in Cape Town and our pulse rates have returned to normal, there’s a great opportunity to think of this year’s Rugby World Cup through a different lens.

As fans, we all think of the crunching tackles, the breakaway tries down the wings or even Damian Willemse’s ultimate flex of asking for a scrum after calling for a mark in his own 22. But there’s so much more that went on. Rugby, in particular the RasNaber management of the Bok campaign, has been a masterclass in just about everything we try to teach at business school.

It really was a campaign of firsts: The Boks became the first side to win a World Cup four times and in the process it was possibly the first time that the top-ranked team in the tournament had to play everyone from the sixth-best to the second-best team in the world to lift the trophy.

The Boks’ last three games were decided by a single point each time, but what was significant was how the game management changed each time. There was a level of innovation and agility that is lacking in many organisations – and certainly, traditionally, at the highest showcase of rugby.

What Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber did in the final, going with a 7-1 bench, only to lose the squad’s single full-time hooker within the first three minutes, is unprecedented.

The quarterfinal was helter-skelter; with the French élan resulting in wonderful tries, only for the Boks to strike back minutes later. In the semifinal against the English, dead on their feet from the rigours of the week before, the Boks went back to the basics. The England team really did their homework on the Springboks and came up with a totally different format, a slow, negative, totally stripped-back game. The English were very disciplined, and their tactics worked for a long time.

That’s clever leadership. How you respond to that is just as significant. Pulling off Manie Libbok and then hooking Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi to let the bomb squad come on far earlier than planned, was both clever and courageous. It takes testicular fortitude to pull off the people who were the engine room of the win the week before to get the result you need.

A big lesson for all of us is that if your definition of strategy doesn’t include action then you are in trouble, because you develop strategies in action, you work out what is happening, and you adapt.

Strategy is far bigger than just abstract thinking. You work out what’s going on and you create a sense of responsibility. One of the most significant parts of Erasmus’s recent biography is where he says: “You actually don’t need a lot of leaders in my opinion; you need players who take ownership.” It’s vital to have people in uncertain circumstances who react cleverly to notice others’ mistakes, learn, adapt.

A really good strategy allows you to be agile and to adapt.

For South Africa to turn that game around against all probabilities shows exactly that. It didn’t happen from nothing, the coaches responded to the dynamics and reacted accordingly, without ever panicking and allowing themselves to be sucked into their opponent’s strategy.

Anxiety and pressure are vital to unlock the best in people, but too much can overwhelm them. It all comes back to strategy; you have to work out the circumstances that allow you establish what is going on to be able to change your response accordingly. It’s a perfect example of why you don’t go for certainty of strategy; it’s best to opt for what is vaguely right than a fantasy of perfectly right and then get more vaguely right things working in your favour.

Winning doesn’t have to be elegant, it can be ugly, but it’s still a win.

When I was teaching strategy in Cape Town over many years, I used to start every course by asking the students: “do you want to be an expert in strategy, or do you want to be a really good strategist?”

It’s an important question because the answer means two very different things; if you want to be a good strategist it means you have to be able to work in the mess that is reality. Your attitude becomes “how can I get more probable outcomes with success happening more regularly?” Whereas if you come in with expert solutions – “this is where we will be in a year’s time” – what happens if things change in that period?

You have to adapt your goal to the circumstances all the time. You have to be aware. It’s messy and hard, not the abstract lessons of the ivory tower. Leadership is the same, it’s learnt and honed over time, being tested in the trenches, not parroted out of textbooks. You have to trust that you are learning and in doing that you never give up; you just keep on getting better until conditions change to allow you to win.

Real leadership is about being able to visualise the possibility of success in the very worst of conditions.

You lose your right to be a leader when you give in to cynicism. We see this in Viktor Frankl’s tragic optimism in the worst of all situations; the Holocaust death camps. The great leaders tell their people “it’s going to be tough, but we will do it”.

If you want to avoid disasters, you’ve got to show up, it doesn’t help to moan around the braai fire or the water cooler. You’ve got to be an activist.

Success is painful. Leading is painful – as Elon Musk says, it’s staring into the abyss and eating broken glass. All the biggest, most painful problems end up on the CEO’s desk.

On top of all that, you have to adapt, be prepared to try new things, to innovate, but also go back to basics when you see it isn’t working. Through it all you have to fight for what you believe in, every single day.

Leadership isn’t about winning, in fact, you might not get to “win” in your life or your tenure as CEO, but you must ensure that the people around you and who come after you do win. And that is RasNaber and the Springboks’ greatest legacy for all of us, over and above making history by becoming the first team to win the cup four times.

This article was originally published in Daily Maverick.

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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