Somewhere over the Indian Ocean, on a long, disconsolate flight between Cape Town and Auckland, the All Blacks coach turned to his manager: ‘We have a dysfunctional team. If it’s not fixed, I won’t be back.’
The All Blacks had just lost to South Africa 40-26, finishing last in the annual Tri-Nations tournament. Worse still, on the evening of the defeat, a ‘court session’ – an alcohol-fuelled mock trial – had left some famous faces lying comatose in hallways, bushes, and gutters. Defeat had been compounded by shame. Something had to change.
The leadership team that set about transforming All Blacks culture was a mix of old-school grafters and new-school psychology. One had been raised in orphanages, others were ex-farmhands, a few were first-class rugby players. Together, they knew the meaning of hard knocks and hard yards. But they also knew that it would take a change in the softer aspects of the team’s culture to deliver the results they desired.
They gathered the whole team together, and set about defining a new vision: ‘to play the best rugby that has ever been played and be the most dominant team in history’. And a new purpose: ‘to inspire and unite New Zealand’. These ambitions were underpinned by new values: humility, excellence, and respect. So far, so good. But they knew that to turn this vision into action, they needed something more engaging than mere statements of intent.
They turned to the nation’s Maori culture for inspiration. They drew upon Maori warrior narratives, stories of brave men entrusted with defending the tribe in the name of whanau, mana and whakapapa (family, honour, and ancestry), and used them to craft a new narrative of winning for team and country. It was a story that fired the imagination, demanded commitment, and forged a shared identity.
A nation’s folklore
But for the story to deliver results, it had to live and breathe in the life of the team. For the next stage of their cultural transformation they needed to make the story real. They spent time crafting the team’s ‘folklore’, principles that the team could live and abide by every day. Mantras like ‘leave the jersey in a better place’ spoke of the legacy they were to leave behind. Customs like ‘sweeping the sheds’ (leaving dressing rooms spotless) encouraged humility and discipline. And rituals like the haka, the famous pre-match spectacle, were revived – less to terrify the opposition than to summon the spirit of the team. This new folklore instilled the self-belief required for the All Blacks to reclaim their place as the world’s most formidable team.
The team was transformed. A change of culture led to a change in fortunes: by working on their soft power, they delivered hard results. They went on to win the World Cup in 2011 and again in 2015. Since then they have achieved the longest-ever winning streak in rugby history. They have been the number one team in the world for twice as long as all the others combined.
And the moral is…
Behind every winning team is a powerful story.