How sport can teach business leaders to ‘pass the ball’

Dr Tienie Ehlers is chief learning officer USB Executive Development (USB-ED), the private executive development company of Stellenbosch University. (Picture: Supplied)
Dr Tienie Ehlers is chief learning officer USB Executive Development (USB-ED), the private executive development company of Stellenbosch University. (Picture: Supplied)

Before the New Zealand versus England World Cup semi-final in 1995 an anonymous fax to the All Black team read: “Remember that rugby is a team game; all 14 of you make sure you pass the ball to Jonah.” (Referring to the late legendary All Black winger, Jonah Lomu.)

We all understand how a sports team is made up: individual players with talent are put together and a captain leads the charge. 

This mirrors the composition of team in business, where individual employees with talent put together and led by the CEO. But in the case of a sports team, there is a difference in that there is a ball, and everyone in the team gets a chance with the ball!

To explain this analogy within a rugby stadium – there is a referee, representing the rules, governance, ethics, laws and ensures fair competition. 

There are the spectators (our stakeholders) made up mostly of individual shareholders, but there are also those fans in executive boxes/suites (the majority shareholders) and there is a presidential suite (board and chairperson), and even the media box (from which the members of the media report on the game – and on the company’s performance).

But the match happens on the field, which consists of goal posts and a try line – the ultimate goal of the organisation being to score against the key performance areas (KPAs). 

The weather on the day represents the external environmental conditions to deal with, which change ever so often. The most important facet of this game is the players with their captain leading the charge – and, as in business, talented individuals are recruited. 

How? It is accomplished by mandating the correct roles – what skills or personalities do you need for each role and how do they complement one another? It is, after all, a team sport.

But what about the strategy? Plan A or Plan B? It is executed using that oval, oddly shaped object called the ball. 

The ball is everything – no one ever disputes the ball – have we ever seen players leave the ball behind and tackle other players? (Maybe yes, but not legally!) 

Have players ever run abreast to the goal line without the ball? No – the ball is what guides the direction of the game: everyone wants it but everyone then passes it to someone in a better position. 

The ball is the purpose every individual on the team buys into.

Who carries this strategy? Is it only the captain, or does he pass the ball? He only leads and runs onto the field with the ball at the start of a match, but then it becomes everyone’s ball. 

The ball doesn’t change – it gets kicked, it gets lost, knocked on, dropped, thrown to wrong players and even intercepted, but it guides the whole match for the full duration. 

It creates a structure of meaning, a sense of purpose, belonging, teamwork and most important personal responsibility. 

It becomes the concept of “pass the ball” as explained in James Kerr’s book Legacy – using the All Black rugby team as example of great leadership. It enables and empowers the individual by entrusting them with responsibility for the success of the team.

Kerr asks the question: “How do the best in the world stay the best in the world? What are the secrets of sustained success? How do you maintain exceptional standards, day after day, week after week, year after year? 

How do you develop ownership, leadership and accountability in your team? How do you train to win at the highest level? How do you turn vision into action, purpose into practice, and pressure into results...”

Graham Henry, former All Black coach had the following philosophy in his coaching approach: Transfer leadership from senior management to the players – they do the leading on the field. 

He formed leadership groups by giving the senior players a portfolio of responsibilities from on-field leadership to social organisation, to mentoring younger players through to community relations. 

This resulted in a culture change they called mana, meaning “not oppressive” in Maori. 

A typical working week for the All Black team epitomises this model: Sunday evening review meetings are facilitated by the coaches, but with significant input from on-field leadership (senior players). 

As the week progresses, the ball continues to be passed on – a gradual hand-over of responsibility and decision-making. 

By the time they reach Thursday, the intensity levels, priorities and most aspects are “owned” by the players. 

By the time they go on to the field on Saturday, the ball has been completely passed on to the players who take full accountability on the field. 

This is leading by creating leaders. As in business strategy, objectives and KPAs are set, but the ball is passed to the entire team to handle the responsibility and execution of the strategy. 

Henry states that “enabling my players to take charge of their own environment is the thing I am most proud of”. This shared responsibility means shared ownership. 

A sense of inclusion means individuals are more willing to give themselves to a common cause.

In our world, which is characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), whether in business or sport, we need to be able to adapt and respond quickly with tactics and make decisions in the field by every player (meaning “in-the-moment”) and not on the field by the captain only (referring to reactive decisions).

Previous Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is quoted as saying: “It comes down to the quality of the people in the system. Every team may have the same structures, but it boils down to the people. 

They are the DNA that gives success its unique personality. The culture is about people. […] Invest in the right people and let them become the best by giving them responsibility, but you recruit for talent, character is what you are looking for […] character triumph over talent…”

The leaders (coach, CEO, board) provide a clear picture (vision) of success, but the implementation, understanding of this intention and the right training is key. 

By equipping staff with intention, leaders can enable their people to respond appropriately to changing context in the field, without losing sight of the tactical imperative. 

Yes, there is a plan before the game, but as well-known former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson said: “Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.” 

If the players don’t posses the character to make the decision in the moment after the ball has been passed to them, they just aimlessly run up and down the field. 

In essence its approach and philosophy is what makes the All Black rugby team different from any other rugby nation in the world. 

Its “staff members” are recruited for talent and character, then given ownership through “passing the ball” and taking full accountability and initiative at that very moment – and each member of the team knows that all his peers have the same intent, because the strategy is clear and the team has a single purpose.

Here are some of these philosophies Graham Henry and Steve Hansen have instilled within the All Blacks from which leadership lessons can be learnt:

- “Pass-the-ball” approach – let leadership flow right through the team onto the field and then in the field;

- Make active decisions to form a powerful sense of purpose;

- Entrust players with key decisions while “in the field”;

- Train-to-win system – recreating the real play during training as if they are in the moment;

- Creating a learning environment to develop and self-improve; and

- Develop techniques, rituals and language that connect players in the field in order to create purpose and intention.

Leaders must implement a “pass-the-ball” approach. 

They deliberately hand over responsibility in order to create engaged team players who are then able to adapt their approach to suit the condition. One-dimensional tactics must not be used. 

Command and control in a VUCA world is mostly uncompetitive. By creating this devolved management structure, leaders create ownership, autonomy and initiative. When you equip your staff with intent, they visualise the end state, outline the plan, provide the right resources and trust their people to deliver. 

They pass the ball in the field. The result is a team of individuals prepared and able to stand up when it counts – leaders in the field!

Dr Tienie Ehlers is chief learning officer (CLO) at USB Executive Development (USB-ED), the private executive development company of Stellenbosch University. He often assists organisations and sporting bodies in HR, strategy and leadership consulting and facilitation.

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