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15 mantras for winning like the All Blacks at Team Culture: James Kerr's Legacy

Powerful and practical lessons for business culture from book studying world's greatest rugby team

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Image: The All Blacks performing a haka prior to a Test match against France in 2006 by Sonya & Jason Hills from London, UK - 2006_11_18_200413, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Your business is floundering, and you're feeling low. 

As low, in fact, as the All Blacks were, after their catastrophic quarter-final failure in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. 

"There's a sort of desolate decay and the smell of death." - All Blacks hooker Anton Oliver

This was the dismal description of the changing sheds by the retiring hooker, reported in New Zealand media site Snuff and elsewhere.

The loss was put down to many things but one reason rose to the top: there was a desperate need for good leadership.

Deciding to make a team of leaders

It's incredible to see what self-relection and good leadership did to turn the All Blacks around.

By 2011, forwards coach Steve Hanson was explaining an extraordinary change to The Guardian.

"The leadership within the group is a lot better than it was then. It is shared and everyone has taken ownership of the team."

Could improving your team's own leadership skills help your company too? 

The turning point for the All Blacks: No dickheads

James Kerr's bestseller Legacy does a deep analysis of the All Blacks' famously consistent team culture.  

Self-reflection by the executive led to the creation of 15 elegant mantras, and they turned the All Blacks around. 

In our interview James Kerr tells us how the All Blacks' mantras are lived inside the changeroom and outside the pitch.

And, below, he shares what they mean by the rather elegant mantra: No dickheads

From decaying to deadly

The mantras are central to how the All Blacks came to dominate World Rugby, and become one of the greatest sporting teams today. 

(You may also like to read how some of Silicon Valley's top bosses led their teams). 

How powerful could you be if your executive developed their own 15 mantras? 


The All Blacks 15 Mantras:

Mantra #1. Sweep the Sheds

“Never be too big to do the small things that need to be done.” 

It would be easy for the All Blacks to develop out-sized egos.  After all, they now dominate their code, and have millions of adoring fans.

But, how can anyone take their success too seriously when expected to literally and figuratively 'sweep the sheds' – the smelly dressing rooms.

It’s how the All Blacks express and practice humility, which they marry up with pride.

Pride in performance; total humility before the magnitude of the task.

Mantra #2. Go for the Gap

“When you’re on top of your game, change your game.” 

This is a lesson in always self-improving. Never become complacent.

Just as in "sweep the sheds", the All Blacks are taught to be aware that today’s rooster can become yesterday’s feather duster if the rot of complacency sets in.

A winning organisation is an environment of personal and professional development, and sustainable competitive advantage is achieved by the development of a continuously self-adjusting culture.

Mantra #3. Play with Purpose

“Ask ‘Why?’”

The only way a team effectively pulls together in one direction is by knowing what the higher purpose is. 

The sense of direction is needed to create belief and personal meaning in each player.  

A clear vision, well-communicated, is what keeps the All Blacks surging forward, and successful teams energised.

Mantra #4. Pass the Ball

“Leaders create leaders.” 

Liz Wiseman fleshes out this concept in her book Multipliers, where she encourages leaders to help others realise their true potential

“Leaders rooted in the logic of multiplication believe:

1. Most people in organisations are under utilised; 

2. All capability can be leveraged with the right kind of leadership; 

3. Therefore, intelligence and capability can be multiplied without requiring a bigger investment.” 

Leaders are not just the captains of the team (or industry); every person on a team should take responsibility and ownership for team improvement.

Mantra #5. Create a Learning Environment

“Leaders are teachers.” 

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Ideal Team Player says team members in any organisation should be humble, hungry and smart.

“Leaders who can identify, hire, and cultivate employees who are humble, hungry, and smart will have a serious advantage over those who cannot.” 

Coaches especially want hungry players.

Players who want to learn and develop their game, who constantly strive to improve.

However it does not mean it is solely the coach’s responsibility to teach. The All Blacks actively encourage players to share learnings and mentor each other, as well as taking responsibility for ensuring they themselves remain competitive.

Mantra #6. No Dickheads

“Follow the whanau (spearhead).”

This is shorthand for the term “hive mind.”  Following the spearhead means flying in formation and ‘being of team’

Perhaps the most important lesson, in a sport that so often lionises individuals, the All Blacks learn that no one is bigger than the team, and individual brilliance doesn’t automatically lead to outstanding results.

One selfish mindset will infect a collective culture.

Mantra #7. Embrace Expectations

“Aim for the highest cloud.”

Dream big is the message behind this lesson. Successful leaders set their expectations high, and try to exceed them.  Of course, the higher the goal, the greater the risk of failure. 

Fear of failure can be both motivating and debilitating.

The All Blacks are taught to embrace fear of failure, and cleverly use a healthy loss aversion to motivate even greater performance.

Mantra #8. Train to Win

“Practice under pressure.” 

Like the U.S. Navy SEALs, the All Blacks place great emphasis on exceptional training – and it’s specifically training to win.

This is the secret to the All Blacks’ famous ability to perform under pressure – they have literally conditioned their brains and bodies to do so.   They train under pressured conditions, and they train to develop their skills.

As James Kerr says in Legacy, most people have the will to win; few have the will to prepare to win.

Mantra #9. Keep a Blue Head

“Control your attention.” 

Decision-making under pressure can separate the best teams from the poor ones.   We have all seen hot heads blow their fuse in any number of sports.

A blue head is the opposite of a hot head. It’s a cool, controlled, pattern-seeing state, when you retain your awareness and your decision-making power.  Bad decisions are not made through a lack of skill or innate judgement: they are made because of an inability to handle pressure at the pivotal moment.

Mantra #10. Know Thyself

“Keep it real.” 

Self-awareness is the catch-cry of many of the world’s most admired thought leaders – from Brené Brown (Dare to Lead) to Patrick Lencioni (The Ideal Team Player).   It is also one of the most critical components to a healthy team culture. 

High-performing teams promote a culture of honesty, authenticity and safe conflict, and leaders lead the way on this.

Mantra #11. Invent Your Own Language

“Sing your world into existence.”

A vocabulary and shared set of beliefs glue a team together.  A strong sense of community and belonging cements All Black players to their team.

Core values underpin the stories that give rise to this vocabulary and community spirit.

Shared understanding of what the All Blacks stand for, and why they stand for it, is how the bonds are strengthened that make them so invincible.

Mantra #12. Sacrifice

“Find something you would die for and give your life to it.”

Asking themselves if they could do a bit more is the champion-making behaviour expected of the All Blacks. They give everything they have, and then are asked to give a little bit more.

Champions do Extra. Bleed on the field and know that your teammates will do the same for you. Be the first to arrive at the gym, be the last to leave.

Good is not considered good enough, and high standards are expected from all players.

Mantra #13. Ritualise to Actualise

“Create a culture.” 

In business parlance, it’s the founder story that brings depth and emotion to a company. 

The All Blacks involve team members in rituals that point to their shared history, reminding and reigniting their collective identity and purpose. 

Their team culture is unique, and is based on their heritage as a nation and rugby team. This is part of creating the legacy that others will inherit.

Mantra #14. Be a Good Ancestor

“Plant trees you’ll never see.” 

This is the moment where All Blacks are asked to “leave the jersey in a better place.”  In a nutshell, it’s about individual players adding to the legacy of this great team.

True leaders, by being stewards of the future, can simply outlast the competition.

Character is highlighted here.  And character takes a higher place in the All Blacks than reputation, because “your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” 

Mantra #15. Write Your Legacy

“This is your time.” 

Imagine this… you’ve finally cracked a spot in the All Blacks.  You are handed a small black book. It shows the jersey from the 1905 Originals, the first tour, and another from the 1924 Invincibles. There are other jerseys, and many pages of information about being an All Black. 

But pages of the book are blank, for you, the new player, to fill in.  You know what the All Blacks stand for, you know what makes a great All Blacks team member.

Now, you are charting your own journey to decide what your legacy to the All Blacks is going to be. 

Better people make better All Blacks, writes Kerr.

Channelling the All Blacks' legacy

So, your company is in a desperate situation.

Or, perhaps your company is okay but not great.  

Start with the mantras.  

  • How can you be better?
  • How can you make the team better?
  • How can you make the future better?

And, first step, get rid of any dickheads.

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