Tom Johnson; Andrew John Martin; Farah Palmer; Geoffrey Watson; Phil Ramsey (all with Massey University, New Zealand)
The Big Idea
In the so-called olden days “to win” meant the struggle, not the outcome. In this research paper, we find a bit of both meanings. For the subject of this study is the remarkable winning legacy of New Zealand’s men’s national representative All Blacks rugby team. Since its inception in 1903 the All Blacks’ winning record is 77%. By any account and compared to any sports teams or franchises—amateur or professional—the All-Blacks may be the most successful organization in the history of modern sport.
These researchers were interested in examining the key values of the All Blacks in sustaining their successful organizational culture. After all, it is the case that very few sport team organizations even approach 70% wins over a 50-year competitive history. Brazilian football, for example, has a 63.5% winning record in FIFA competition.
The All Blacks’ record flies in the face of Danny Miller’s Icarus Paradox (1990) thesis on why sustaining success in sport is so difficult: success generates complacency, and complacency in turn generates falling from the heights of success. The All Blacks’ record even challenges one of Nobel Prize-winning researcher Daniel Kahneman’s ideas in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). Kahneman argues that success is a combination of talent and luck; great success is a little more talent and a lot more luck. He maintains that because of the luck factor, winning in the long haul is destined to inevitably fading from the front as sport teams and athletes regress toward the mean. Not so for the All Blacks.
- New Zealand’s men’s national All Blacks rugby team is known for its Century-long international record of winning.
- This research study aimed to uncover the core values of the All Blacks.
- In particular, these researchers wanted to learn how the All Blacks’ core values sustained this winning culture between 1950 and 2010.
- A case study research design was used to better understand and interpret the values, beliefs, and leadership of the All Blacks over time.
- 20 selected captains and coaches were given semi-structured, in-depth interviews to gather their opinions and beliefs about the core values of the All Blacks.
- There were three primary results: winning is an imperative; there is pride in the winning legacy; and leadership of change is embraced.
- The findings of this study suggest that the key to the All Blacks’ success in this 60-year period is the combination of the highest possible level of technical and tactical skill learning, combined with an uncompromising determination to win.
The questions these researchers ask are: 1) how do successful teams and organizations like the All Blacks create a winning ethos? and 2) how do cultural values, beliefs, and leadership play a role in sustaining this success? These values, beliefs, and approaches to leadership are typically embedded in the core assumptions of the organizations. In the case of the All Blacks, this research effort was designed to uncover the central self-perpetuating qualities of its legacy. Of interest to readers of this research would be to learn not only about the All Blacks’ legacy, but about the possible generalizations from their “winning secrets” for other interested sporting organizations.
This research team elected to use a case study approach to answer their questions. Case studies as a rule permit a more degrees of freedom of perspective and interpretation than more conventional quantitative studies. In this qualitative approach, the research team examined the winning culture of the All Blacks over a 60-year history, from 1950-2010. They took a leadership perspective by relying on semi-structured interviews with 20 selected captains and coaches. By way of these interviews spanning a typology of amateur and professional eras, they could thereby reference political, economic, socio-cultural, and technological changes over time—all of which impacted rugby and the All Blacks.
One word telegraphed the 60-year continuity of the All Blacks: Pride. The common ground in all the interviews with captains and coaches was the generational and obligatory responsibility of passing on the importance of winning, decade after decade.
Pride in winning
One captain spoke bluntly: “Winning is everything . . . I think it is part of the All Black ethos.” Above all else, what gets passed on is the “need to win.” Mixed up in this inherited need is a collective attitude of self-confidence, determination, and desire.
Other interviews revealed the huge impact of the winning tradition, almost defined as a fear of losing. The team’s mind-set is to not let previous team players, captains, and coaches down. Even more, as one captain said: “When we lost in our days it was a national disaster and you were scorned by people.” In other words, letting your country down—given that rugby is New Zealand’s national sport—is unthinkable. “I never, ever thought about losing . . . it never entered my head that we would lose and that was ingrained . . . that was the heritage you picked up from the past.”
In the professional era since 1995, one coach said there was now even more pressure to win. He said, “I think there’s a lot more onus on the players to perform because they are getting
paid . . . the players need to be focused and mentally prepared on everything they do and that’s a ‘train to win’ attitude . . . and you expect that when you’re playing for your country.”
Pride in the legacy: the fern on the black jersey
Which brings us to maybe the over-riding core value in the history of the All Blacks’ success. It is simply that they have always won. This winning legacy goes back to 1884 when a team from New Zealand toured Australia, unbeaten. Other Australian tours in 1893 and 1903 proved successful too; in the 1993 tour New Zealand bested Australia 22-3. In 1995 the “Originals” toured the British Isles and America losing only one match, scoring 976 points and giving up only 59. So, perpetuating that winning history is uppermost in the minds of the players, captains, and coaches. Winning World Cups in 1987, 2011, and 2015 most certainly are signs that this winning tradition is alive and well in the minds of the modern national audience as well.
Rugby is New Zealand. That it shaped New Zealand’s identity is a proud legacy for the All Blacks to perpetuate. This sporting pride is identified with pride in New Zealand on the international stage. These coaches and captains repeatedly mentioned that it was easy to adopt a pride in winning when their own rugby culture was endorsed by their people. And “their people” included the Maori (indigenous) players too, not just the Pakeha (New Zealanders of European ancestry). As one captain expressed it:
History and tradition . . . in terms of national pride and the fact that you know you’ve got a higher proportion of the population behind you makes a difference . . . you we seem to have a competitive advantage.
Were it only pride in winning and pride in legacy, it is unlikely the All Blacks would continue to excel in this era of ever-more competitive international rugby. A third finding is the way in which the All Blacks embrace change.
On the individual level one newbie captain spoke of how this imperative of innovation and change defined his own play.
You just have to adapt . . . you can’t keep trying to do what they used to do and get away with it . . .. One thing I have always prided myself on (is) if I can’t have influence then I will figure out some other way to do it . . .. I think that you’re always trying to improve.
In other words, the All Blacks aren’t exclusively hung up on a “win or lose” mentality. Instead, they seemingly adopt an attitude that they never really lose; rather like the Nelson Mandela quote: “I never lose. I either win or learn.” One recent coach put it this way:
One thing we have learnt is that every six months or so we need to change, we don’t change the core, we experiment around the fringes . . . we just keep developing . . . it’s evolution not revolution.
Of course, what perpetuates this culture of innovation is the commitment to it by the leadership of the All Blacks, no matter who it is. There is no room for imposing change from the top in the All Blacks. Instead, it calls for leaders who nurture a learning culture where self-study and creativity are the bedrock of the All Black training and playing environment. Such leadership, when saturating the ethos of captains and coaches alike, is destined to make every player make every other player around them better players.
This research team concludes that the apparent goal of the All Blacks’ philosophy is to seamlessly realize excellence through perpetuating winning as both an uncompromising goal and a creative struggle. Without both meanings of winning, there is no legacy, no national voice, no thoughtfulness, no adaptations, no innovations, no finishing, no core values.
Process alone, in other words, is not the key to the All Blacks’ success over the last 112 years. Winning and learning is a more primary explanation of this remarkable record. In the researchers’ words about the All Blacks’ values and aspirations:
. . . the findings of this study suggest the key to the All Blacks’ success is focusing on both: combining the highest possible level of technical and tactical skill with an uncompromising focus on winning.