This is the story of a country that transformed a small population into a world-beating sporting dynasty that continues to enthrall rugby fans across the world to this day. Dressed in an all-black kit, there is something iconic about the journey and there’s an awful lot that we can learn.
Sporting dynasties have always fascinated us. In highly competitive sporting arenas where you’re pitching the best of the best against each other, there are those rare moments when an individual or a team manages to establish themselves in a league of their own – despite everyone snapping at their heels. These moments enthrall us because they display excellence at the peak of their powers. They etch themselves in our memories and the tales of their victories live on far beyond the era that they achieve them in.
In the world of rugby, the New Zealand rugby team (known as the All Blacks) have achieved this status by becoming a dominant force in the sport over decades, despite their limited resources and tiny population size when compared to their rivals. It’s a story of determination, discipline, structure, innovation, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the top and stay there.
There’s a lot to learn from them and these lessons transfer into the business world as well. So, we thought we would do a deep dive into the strategic thinking and execution that have made the All Blacks the powerhouse that they are.
Touch. Pause. Engage.
Let’s first start by setting the scene to give you a sense as to why the success of the All Blacks is so remarkable. The sport of rugby union only came to the remote island in 1870 thanks to Charles Monro who had discovered the sport while studying in England and brought it home to his homeland with no idea as to what he would start.
The country really took to the game and the very first rugby board was set up just a few years later. Eventually, in 1903, the country participated in its first-ever test match, playing against local rivals Australia in Sydney. Just one year later, the team embarked on a remarkable 34-game tour of Europe and North America where they lost only one game, the first of the tour against Wales.
This early success was an ominous sign for the rest of the rugby world. Here was this tiny nation heralding from the other side of the world, arriving to beat them at their own game on their home soil. It was a remarkable story and one that filled the nation with pride every time the team returned home.
Quickly the game spread to become a phenomenon around the country and every young boy started to dream about playing for the All Blacks. In New Zealand, there was not much else to cheer about when it came to sport. They struggled to field strong enough teams in most sports because of the sheer numerical disadvantage that the country had to deal with. With the exception of cricket, New Zealand remained a minnow in almost every major sport that it competed in.
Rugby was a way out. They saw early on that with the right structures in place and dedication to the sport, they could create something really special. The administrators, coaches, and various other stakeholders came together to transform this new game into one that could help New Zealand stake a claim for itself on the global stage. There was an opportunity to leverage the unique genetic traits, ball skills, and passion for the game and create a dynamism that would propel them to the top of the sport.
And propel them it did.
Fast forward to the start of the professional era in 1995, and New Zealand had established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the world of rugby. Over the years to come, they would establish a dynasty, unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the sport, striking fear into the hearts of the opposition and winning absolutely everything that was there to be won.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Let’s look at how they did it.
To dominate a sport for long periods, you have to have a very solid foundation of new players coming through all the time. You cannot rely on the once-in-a-generation superstars if you want your success to last, you need to have the right structures in place from the grassroots that consistently deliver the sorts of players that can become world-class.
That’s what New Zealand does better than anyone else.
The administrators understood that if they were to create a world-beating team, they should be investing in every layer of the game so that they could create a conveyor belt of talent starting all the way in primary school and guiding them through the process until they were ready to step onto the world stage. These sorts of development paths don’t just happen accidentally. They require a lot of intentional effort and investment of resources to create a system that not only finds talented young sportspeople but gives them what they need to maximize their potential.
Early on, New Zealand realized that the most effective form of development is highly competitive matches. Training is, of course, a crucial part of the equation – but the real learnings come when you are competing in the heat of battle and fighting for every inch. That’s where it matters.
So, they set out to create a rugby system that was as competitive as possible at every level. They carefully structured the club leagues in a pyramid, where you would start at the very bottom and slowly progress up each level as you advanced in your career. This was very different from what other countries were doing because there were fewer teams in each league, as compared to the much flatter structures you saw in Europe or South Africa.
What this did was ensure that in every league, the competition was incredibly tight. Instead of having certain teams dominating a league and others lagging, everyone was mostly on the same level, creating a year-long battle that would end up improving everyone who played. The intensity and quality of these games ensured that talented young players had a well-understood path to follow and they were always receiving incremental challenges along the way.
When we apply this principle to business, there’s a clear parallel to how you think about employee development. To get the most out of your talented people, you want to ensure that they are being challenged but without being overwhelmed. It’s all about matching the tasks and the responsibilities to their current abilities which comes down to a lot of self-awareness and an understanding of what someone’s career trajectory looks like.
Many companies err on the two extremes, either giving an employee a role that is well beyond their capabilities or patronizing them with something that doesn’t push them at all. Finding the Goldilocks zone in the middle is the key and it’s what can be the make or break between empowering someone to grow and disillusioning them to the point where they leave to go seek other challenges.
Key Takeaway: The best way to develop your people is to provide challenges and competition to them that push them just out of their comfort zone, and then let them work incrementally up from there.
Another key component that contributes to the success of the All Blacks is the focus and specialization that they have when it comes to rugby. As we mentioned above, there are not many other sports that compete with rugby in the country and they’ve become somewhat of a specialist as a result. Every boy at school plays rugby. It is a symbol of national pride. It’s something that brings everyone together.
It’s an integral part of the culture.
This narrow focus means that the vast majority of sporting resources can be deployed into one endeavor, to maximize the effectiveness. It’s the only way that a country with less than 5 million people can compete on the global stage. There are no other distractions and the efforts are not being spread across a range of different things. Compare this to other countries where different sports are vying for the same talented youngsters and you start to get a sense of just why the New Zealand rugby setup has been so successful.
In business, this is the case too. Specialization is how you stand out and achieve excellence. One of the most common mistakes that we see organizations making is trying to do too much. They get excited by all the various possibilities and the scope of their roadmap begins to grow. This enthusiasm is infectious but it distracts the company from its stated mission and creates competition for time and resources that might not be pushing the business to where it needs to go.
The companies that succeed are those that tackle one thing and dedicate everything they have to it. A laser focus that is backed up by time, effort, and resources is incredibly powerful because it creates a vortex around it that helps you to overcome the obstacles in your way. Instead of being carried away by the tides in the market, you can focus on the job ahead and use your north star goal to align and motivate your team.
That’s what it takes to become the world’s best and that’s what we can learn from the way that New Zealand approaches its rugby.
Key Takeaway: Specialization pays off, especially in a world where everyone else’s efforts are diffused and distracted.
The next piece of the puzzle that sets the All Blacks apart from their rivals comes down to how New Zealand rugby players are raised. There is a certain ethos that carries through from school all the way up to the national side – and they’ve been able to keep it consistent throughout which is really powerful. The ethos talks to the types of players that they want to create and it sets an example of what it means to be a rugby player in New Zealand.
This ethos is reinforced at every level of the game and becomes the value statement that every player takes on – at least if they want to wear the hallowed All Black jersey. Some of the key values that matter are as follows:
We could go on and on but those are some of the values that stand out. Of course, these are not just written on a mission statement as an act of theatre, they are lived out by players across the country because that’s what it means to play rugby in New Zealand. They’ve created a culture around the sport that means that every person in the system understands what is expected of them and can pull in the same direction towards the right result for the collective.
In a business context, you also have to set a culture. And whether you do it intentionally or accidentally, your team is going to pick up on it and live those values out in the workplace. So, you might as well get control of those and craft the sort of environment that is going to give you the best chance of success. What sorts of values matter to you? How can you instill those in your team?
These are questions that you need to answer carefully because it makes a significant difference to the long-term prospects of your organization. Your ethos and your values are the calling cards for the kind of business that you want to run and they are the things that spread as you scale. They determine the kinds of talent you attract and the experience that your customers have when they interact with your brand.
Spending the time to clearly articulate your values and consistently reinforcing them throughout the organization is what’s going to help you bring everyone together and nurture a company culture that will last.
Key Takeaway: Your company culture has a disproportionate effect on your long-term success so it’s crucial to be thoughtful, intentional, and consistent in your execution.
Potentially the most recognizable thing about the All Blacks is the famous war dance that they perform before every single match. This Māori challenge is called a ‘haka’ and it’s a traditional chant that harks back to the heritage of New Zealand and the surrounding islands. In the modern context, it has become a real calling card for the team, and performing it just before the match proves to be quite intimidating for any opposition team.
There’s something about the energy and intensity with which it is performed that creates a sense of anticipation and yearning for what is to come. It’s clear that the team is ready to go to war on the field and the primal nature of the performance shows the opposition that they mean business.
Internally, it’s easy to imagine just how powerful this ritual can be. As you stand there with your teammates, you bond over this sacred performance and draw energy from the group as you do so. There is no doubt that you run onto that field feeling like a warrior and that definitely contributes to your attitude and performance in the match. The passion and drama are infectious and it gets the players into the right frame of mind for the battle that is to come.
The ritualistic aspect also creates a consistency in their pre-match preparations that helps to eliminate any nerves and stoke the muscle memory to get the job done on the pitch. It acts as a focus switch to put aside everything else in your mind and focus on the job at hand. These moments where we can escape our thinking mind and let our subconscious take over are where true mastery is possible – in the sporting world and life in general.
There are two key learnings that we can take from the haka that can be applied to the world of business:
If you haven’t seen a haka performed by the All Blacks, we really do encourage you to check it out – it’s quite the experience. But more importantly, use it as inspiration for creating your own iconic symbols and rituals that can transform your company into something that stands out from the rest.
Key Takeaway: Leverage the power of the haka in your organization by creating iconic symbols and rituals that pull everyone together and get them into the right mental state to perform at their best.
Another key aspect that sets the All Blacks apart is the way they play their rugby. One of the reasons that they have so many admirers across the world is that their play is incredibly expansive and exciting to watch. Whenever you watch a New Zealand game, you know that you’re going to see tries. The rugby culture in the country is to back your skills, take risks, and go score tries – so that’s what ends up playing out at the highest level.
That might sound obvious to non-rugby fans, but it’s actually quite rare. In most cases, rugby is seen as a scrap where you win thanks to small margins and the focus is much more on controlling territory and capitalizing on your opponents’ mistakes. There aren’t many other teams that are willing to throw the ball around like the All Blacks do because it is high-risk rugby. There are a lot more things that can go wrong when you play expansively.
But the All Blacks do it anyway because it’s in their nature.
The philosophy in New Zealand rugby is to attack whenever possible. They have a certain confidence in their own skills and the those of their teammates to throw caution to the wind and attack the opposition with fast, creative rugby. This mindset makes it very difficult to defend against because you always feel like you’re under pressure. Wave after wave of attacks come through and the moment that you show a chink in your armor, you can find yourself in trouble.
The only way that this works at scale is that coaches throughout the levels are willing to back their players. What looks slick at the national level actually required a lot of patience and failure tolerance at the lower levels for it to come into being. Coaches need to buy into the idea that expansive rugby is going to invite more mistakes, but we should embrace them because it’s for the greater good of their long-term development. This is very different from a coaching style where failure is avoided at all costs and it inculcates fear of trying new things or taking risks.
The offensive approach typifies what New Zealand rugby is all about and we could use a bit of that energy in our lives.
In business, it’s absolutely crucial that we are willing to take risks. Our ability to tolerate failure in our attempts to innovate is what creates the fertile ground for game-changing leaps and ideas to come to the fore. We should always be on the front foot, trying to disrupt ourselves, and allowing space for the crazy ideas that might feel over-ambitious.
If we’re able to do that successfully, we put ourselves in a good position to dominate an industry because we’re pushing the boundaries of what is possible. The alternative is to play things safe, stay away from risk, and we’ll remain stuck where we are.
This is not to say that we take risks for the sake of them. We still need to be strategic and make sure that we’re covering the downside whenever possible. But if we can approach our company with a positive, forward-thinking attitude, we’re going to have better results over the long term. Attack the opportunities ahead of you and you can leverage that momentum to take your organization to the next level.
Key Takeaway: A positive attitude combined with the appropriate risk tolerance is what determines your ability to innovate. You need to be on the offensive to make the most of new opportunities, rather than waiting for things to happen to you.
By the time that you get to the biggest stage of them all, your mental strength matters more than almost anything else. At these levels, the physical advantages are more or less neutralized and your success is going to depend on your ability to perform under pressure and manage your emotions as you go toe to toe with the opposition.
This is where New Zealand really shines. They know that, in order to be the best in the world, they need to be stronger mentally than those they play against. The battle happens between the ears and if they aren’t able to manage that then they’re not going to be able to perform at the required level. They take this very seriously and have integrated sports psychology throughout the system to help their players acquire the mental skills and resilience that they need to get through any situation.
Nowhere is this more evident than the statistics around second-half comebacks. Since 2004, the All Blacks found themselves behind at half-time in 42 games of the 188 they played. Of those 42, they won 28 of them. That’s a staggering statistic and it points to the mental strength that they can draw on when things are going against them.
It’s unlikely that any of us will ever understand the level of pressure that these players play under, with the weight of their country on their shoulders and enough eyeballs on them to confound even the calmest of us. But that’s part and parcel of the job. So, New Zealand has gone above and beyond to equip its players with the mental models and strength that they need to cope in the circumstances that they find themselves in. This effort pays off in the big moments where the stakes are at their highest and that’s why New Zealand has become known as the team that performs at their best when they’re under pressure.
In your business, psychology matters too. You might not have the world’s media waiting for you to drop a ball, but you face a different set of stressors and challenges as you navigate whatever industry that you’re in. Your mental resilience and the tools that you have to keep yourself on track make a big difference to your overall performance and it’s not something that you should take lightly.
As a business leader, your mind is all you have and you should do everything you can to help it perform at its optimal level. Many leaders these days will leverage the skills of a business coach or performance consultant to give them some accountability and a fresh perspective on their psychology so that they can continue to improve. This can be incredibly helpful but you can also make progress on your own even without working with a professional. Just becoming more aware of your typical thought patterns and how they impact your behavior can be extremely powerful for fine-tuning the way you run the business and can lead to much better results over the long term.
It also applies in a group context when you think about the psychology of your team. If you want to get the most out of the people that work in your organization, it makes a lot of sense to invest in helping them improve their own psychology which will then filter through to their work performance. By setting the example and prioritizing mental health and performance, you’ll create an environment where these things are not stigmatized anymore and people are encouraged to take steps to improve their psychology over the long term.
Every incremental step you can take here to help a team member get more out of themselves will compound in value and give you a significant boost as you seek to advance your operations. As a society, we’re slowly waking up to this fact, but you can get ahead of the curve by being proactive and investing in mental strength when so many others are ignoring it. It’s a no-brainer if you’ll excuse the pun.
Key Takeaway: Most of the battle happens inside our heads, so why not invest in improving your psychology? Invest in mental health and resilience and your company will be able to perform optimally under pressure.
The All Blacks remain at the top of their game even to this day and the best compliment that has been paid to them is the fact that all the other teams have begun to copy the best principles and strategies that have made them so successful. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a dynasty rise up in the sport of rugby like we have with the All Blacks and we have a lot to learn from how they think about the sport and how they build the necessary structures to continue performing at the level they have been.
Hopefully, through this strategy study, you’ve been able to pick up some learnings that you can apply to your organization. Professional sport offers a unique viewpoint into what it takes to grow a successful operation and sometimes we can see things that just aren’t as clear in traditional business conversations.
Just to recap, here are the main takeaways that we drew from the All Blacks dynasty:
Now, it’s time to get back on the field and put these into action. By applying the same attitudes, strategies, and ways of thinking that the All Blacks demonstrate, you’ll set yourself up well to compete and win in your industry of choice. It’s not an overnight thing, these things take time, but with enough effort – you can transform your organization from the inside out.
Channel your inner professional athlete and use the inspiration of those dressed in black to drive you towards greater success.
We can’t wait to see your dynasty and marvel at what you’re able to achieve.