Will my network be solid enough to open doors for me – Bryan Habana

Win! Compelling Conversations with 20 Successful South Africans by Jeremy Maggs is published by Jacana Media, and is available in all good bookstores at a recommended retail price of R240
Win! Compelling Conversations with 20 Successful South Africans by Jeremy Maggs is published by Jacana Media, and is available in all good bookstores at a recommended retail price of R240

This is an extract from Win! Compelling Conversations with 20 Successful South Africans by Jeremy Maggs.

This is the success story of a sports star who, in a sea of a big names, has the ability to make a crowd of fifty thousand people or more draw breath every time he touches a ball because you instinctively know his tireless energy and brilliant unpredictability can turn a rugby game on its head in seconds.

In a first-class career that has spanned more than a decade, Bryan Gary Habana has been a prolific try scorer – more than any other Springbok in history.

It could be claimed his path to glory was pre-determined by his parents who named him after two Manchester United football legends, Bryan Robson and Gary Bailey, another successful South African.

If Bryan has one regret, even after reaching the pantheon of success, it is that he didn’t complete his studies.

In our Skype conversation from southern France, where he plies his magic, he dwells on that a lot, as well as the transitory nature of success and how important it is for successful people always to think of the next phase of their life – you must have a Plan B he tells me.

So many successful people can recount with absolute clarity the moment they achieved success, whether through a large amount of money in the bank account or maybe recognition through an award or peer accolade.

For a star winger, Bryan’s success was more like a lumbering prop forward.

“My first-ever game of rugby was for the U14 G-side at King Edward School and wasn’t quite the fairy-tale start I had hoped for. It took me a long time to develop and it took me even longer to win a professional contract, having moved up through the ranks of the game very slowly.”

During that time he encountered much hardship and adversity, but success started to come easier, he says, once he relaxed and started liking what he did.

His sage advice is not to focus too much on acquiring success but to let it come to you.

Part of that process, he says, as difficult as it might seem, is to not be overwhelmed by the huge expectation of success.

Bryan also believes in self-reflection and reassessment.

He says at every juncture of his career he’s asked himself key questions about how he is performing, why he might be failing, where he wants to go professionally and, interestingly, whether what he is doing at any given point is what he really wants to do; and if it is making him happy.

You’d think that with all of that coursing around his head, he’d have little time to dart, weave, dummy and duck on the playing field.

But it seems that rigorous and constant self-examination is key to his success. Part of the process is seeking help and he’s not the first person to tell me that.

Bryan also suggests that success and failure need to be deconstructed and re-assembled from time to time.

“Sometimes it’s about going back to the basics and rediscovering what got you there in the first place.”

I’m intrigued by this exercise of re-assessment. It would seem to us mortals that have never had tens of thousands of people cheering you on and shouting your name, that sports success is the very definition of high self-esteem and a state of invincibility. Not at all.

Says Bryan: “The saying that the highest trees get the most wind is the absolute truth. It’s at that stage of your career that you are likely to experience the most doubt and the most fear. At that point, as hard as it might be, you have to humble yourself and be open to criticism and when I say criticism I mean listening to people you can confide in and trust; people who don’t really care about what you have achieved but care about you continuing to achieve something different. And it is scary. Most of us don’t want to be told where we are going wrong.”

I suppose it’s easier not to get things wrong if there is a clear blueprint; a career map.

Bryan agrees: “I was fortunate to be coached by Heyneke Meyer, who went on to be the most successful South African Super Rugby coach, and I will never forget him telling me 90% of people that write down their goals become 10% of the richest people. I suppose if goals are just in your head you are dreaming about them and not doing anything tangible. I also think writing down goals becomes important when you are looking back to see what you have and haven’t done.”

So what has he written down in recent times, apart from having an injured knee fixed and starting on the path to rehabilitation? Most importantly it’s that missing education component in his life.

“I am starting to study again; something that rugby got in the way of and has caused me much disappointment in my life.”

Bryan is one of many successful people who believe in the power of knowing people. So many people I’ve spoken to are inveterate businesscard collectors and active on social media platforms like LinkedIn.

It reminds me of a story my banker father told me about a senior colleague who was a favourite on the cocktail-party circuit.

My father determined that his strategy was less about the two-olive Martini than it was about shaking the hand of every person in the room who could be of some use now or later in his career.

The single drink was never touched and he slipped out without anyone noticing.

He was lauded for his popularity and social stamina and this was back in the 1970s, long before technology made networking both scientific and tactical. Let’s get back to Bryan.

“I’m focusing hard on making sure that the network that I have been able to create over the past 15 years is solid and can open doors for me. Making the jump from sportsman to going into the real world is not going to be easy, but that is where planning is vital.”

And that might imply that for all the on-field courage, he is nervous about the future? Bryan concurs.

“To make a complete life change after a number of years is a scary thought. I have been fortunate to have been very successful throughout my rugby career and hopefully with some good relationships that have been formed that will stand me in good stead long after rugby has finished. But that said, it does sometimes seem like a daunting task from having your flights and all the other logistics sorted, to now having to do all that stuff on your own. In my professional career most things have been done for me. Obviously it is not like that in the real world. But that said, I think I am really excited about what the business world has to offer.”

Bryan is acutely aware of the responsibilities that come with success and says people who have made it or are on the path to success should heed them well. “Successful people are people who can make a difference to those around them. Great leaders are people who make those around them spread their wings. Successful people are willing not only to give back but understand how hard they have to work to achieve success. Successful people are also willing to sacrifice. I have been fortunate throughout my rugby-playing career to have been part of amazing teams, with amazing captains, and that has rubbed off a little.”

Given that there is an inextricable link these days between money and professional sport – some say too much is swishing around the system – how adept has Bryan been at managing his brand and what is the one word that describes it? I would have thought speed, excitement, courage, ability. Nope. It’s humility.

“I am someone who has always given 100% but also understood how lucky I have been. Part of my makeup is not having an over-inflated ego and to be generous and well-meaning towards others.”

It’s clear from our trans-continental conversation that Bryan is very much a person who is acutely aware of his own success but more so of the community that has helped on his trophy-lined path.

Let me end with a quick story. I first encountered Bryan in a television studio where I was to interview him after another barnstorming performance. Television time is very much like inventory management. If the interview is at x-past the hour, that time allocation is about as set in stone as you can make it.

I saw him arrive for the discussion and then there was an inexplicable delay and I was forced to park the discussion, move on and come back to it later.

During a commercial break I went to find out what had happened to my star guest. And he’d been caught in the proverbial selfie and autograph cue among my colleagues. And not wishing to disappoint he’d simply remained outside smiling and signing.

When I asked him about it, he replied with words to this effect: “You are only as successful as people will allow you to be. If you’re dismissive they will dismiss you. Engaging with fans was more important that talking about myself.”

I can see why the word humility underpins his personal brand architecture.


Success is achieved by not being overwhelmed by the huge expectations.

Successful people always go back to basics and rediscover what got them there in the first place.

Successful leaders help those around them spread their wings.

  • This is an extract from Win! Compelling Conversations with 20 Successful South Africans by Jeremy Maggs, published by Jacana Media. It is available in all good bookstores at a rcommended retail price of R240

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