Business lessons from the Kiwis World Cup victory

Over the weekend I finally managed to watch the New Zealand – Australia rugby league world cup final. The Kangaroos were expected to crush the Kiwis, but the Kiwis won, and won in style. Much has been written about the petulant response from the Australian camp after the match, but I want to focus on why the Kiwis won, and the lessons for the All Blacks and for business.

The evidence is relatively scanty, but to me it was clear the Kiwis operated as a true team can,  while the Kangaroos were more a collection of great players.

Here’s the evidence that I saw:

On field

The Kiwis were very quick and genuine to rallying around anybody that made a mistake in the game. The mistake was accepted as part of the game and the player given a big lift from several of his mates.
The dropped ball:
The pats on the back:

The Kangaroos has a little of this going on, but it just seemed less sincere and at times absent entirely. There were no team pats on the back after this guy knocked a ball on, and in fact he threw the ball away in disgust and was visibly frustrated.

I'm not so good with league later names

The on-field coaching for the Kiwis seemed very light – and from what I could see consisted mainly of “water?” and some focused motivation. There was no play calling or coaching from above that I could see.
advice free water

Importantly ex captain and Ruben Wiki was seconded as a water boy and on field motivator. He didn’t seem to be telling people what to do, he was being a motivating yet calming influence on the team. His presence was very obviously respected and desired. Here he is having a chat to a player after he scored a try.
Calm down now mate

The Australian team on the other hand had more visible scene of on-field coaching, and less interaction between the team. Here’s a shot of a Kanga layer after he made a mistake that garnered a try – he got a word from the coaching staff, but seemingly little from his own team.

It isn’t black and white – both teams were coaching from above, and both teams were coaching from within the players, but it was clear to me that the Kiwis were doing less of the first and more of the second.

The locker room

Half time was very telling as the cameras flashed pictures from the dressing rooms. The Kiwis were standing, sitting, milling around, and most of all interacting with each other. The lead coach was nowhere to be found while the assistant coach was demonstrating something and everyone was paying attention. It looks messy, but it is a sign of a healthy team.
Kiwi locker room

The way the team and coaches/assistants were standing meant that the communication lines were crossing over within the team – each person was helping, learning and getting energy from the other members of the team and the coaching staff. It was clearly about the team helping themselves get better, and with the assistance of the coaches, who were guiding but not directing.

The Australian camp was seated in a U shape with the lead coach seated in the middle of the gap in the U. This is a particularly ineffective way to encourage internal interaction:
Aussie locker room

I’ve seen this layout in a business environment as well – and while it’s great for focusing the attention on the guy in the middle, it’s lousy for promoting discussions within the team. It’s one to many and not many to many, telling and not problem solving. If you ever find yourself in this situation I recommend that you rearrange the room quickly.

The commentators could not show it, but after the match it emerged that the Kiwis had also posted pictures of their families and the word “Brothers” all over the locker room.

This is powerful stuff, and with players of roughly equal ability the winning of the cup was in the locker rooms..

After the game

It was staggeringly asinine, but the man of the match medal was awarded to an Australian. I guess this was because the (Australian) people selecting the man of the match were in denial that Australia would actually lose, or that with only one eye open they thought the Kangaroos had played the better game. The had not. However perhaps it was also because no one superstar player stood out for them in the Kiwi team.

Meanwhile the Kiwis themselves after the match were impossible to pin down when asked about their own performance. They kept referring back to their team mates – their “Brothers.” The “17 players” had delivered the goods, and nobody was going to say that it was their own effort that made any difference, and rightly so.
Reuben Wiki - part of the team

It also came out after the match that  Kiwis always knew it would be a hard road through the World Cup, but they never doubted that they could do it. They knew they would lose early games, but would learn, grow as a team and come back to win at the end.

The behavior of the Australian coach Ricky Stewart, who abused and accused the referee the morning after the match wrapped a nice bow around the whole affair. The refereeing seemed fair enough, and every player in every game knows they should just play the ref and move on. Graham Lowe’s response said it all:

“They (Australia) cracked under pressure. They gave away some inexcusable tries and they didn’t play the whistle.”

“It’s real cry baby stuff.”


The Aussie league commentators didn’t get it, and even the prize ceremony bestowed a crystal thing on the winning coach. The real coaching was done not just by him, but by the assistant coach, the other coaching staff, but most of all by the players themselves.

Australia choking:Kangas choking

The Kangaroos should have won the tournament, but were badly coached, poorly led and did not form a high performing team. They had the best players, access to the best coaches and even a home crowd advantage.

Does this sound familiar?

The All Blacks

As beautiful as it was to watch the Aussie league commentators eat some very large crow, over here in New Zealand we really only care about one Rugby World Cup. Sadly our All Black teams have kept making the same mistakes that the Aussie league team just made.

John Mitchell’s World Cup All Blacks were the nadir. The “Leader” was Mitchell and it appeared to this outsider to be a command and control kind of thing – the team in a U. The game plan was overly rigid, the ability of the team to make their own decisions on field strangely absent and the on field leadership and team dynamics were a shadow of what they should have been. He’s still doing it at Perth with the Force – as a Sunday Star Times article recounts:

One of the best involves an enraged Mitchell tearing strips off the Force during a halftime speech last year. The story goes Mitchell was indignant his team were not following his gameplan and stormed out of the shed after a few choice words saying “you can coach yourselves”.


The players locked the door behind him, and did just that, and went on to comfortably win the match.

That’s a shocking indictment, and it says a lot about the man that he is still attempting to stay on. It’s now about the money for Mitchell, and the team dynamics are destroyed as long as he is there.

Meanwhile Graham Henry probably destroyed the chance of creating a high performing team for the last Rugby World Cup by the player rotation policy. The policy may have made sense physiologically, but it resulted in an unwieldy large “team” and what must have been a sense by players that they were not in control.

Strangely enough there is a link between Mitchell and Aussie league coach Ricky Stewart. Both have the same manager (also referred to as mentor), John Fordham.

Fordham is believed to be a devotee, like Mitchell, to self-betterment and is known to devour self-help books.

Perhaps he is reading the wrong ones.

The Mitchell reign, and to an extent the first Henry reign seemed to me to be about the coach much more than about the team.

It seems to me that teams with the best players in the world coached using the coach as boss style are very good at winning, and winning well, but fall apart when faced with new circumstances, and so lose.

We must aim for teams that have genuine leadership on the field, where all team members are contributors to the collective intelligence of the team, and where team members interact primarily with each other to lift the performance of the group.

The lessons for business

The American Football coaching staff call every play – it’s the rare NFL quarterback that calls his own. The star coach as an American Football coach seems to be something the media demand, and yet it removes the team intelligence and it removes the team. One 50 year old guy is nowhere nearly as smart as 13, 15 or whatever 20 somethings who are at the peak of their game.

It’s the same with business. The CEO, the manager, the team leader are not there to tell people what to do. They are there to foster an environment where the team can work toegther (with the boss) to arrive at the best answers and results.

I’ve seen this in industry time and time again. While it’s easy to show immediate turnaround results by hacking, slashing and burning, it is much harder to keep those results for the next two years. Truly sustainable turnarounds take time, and no matter what the process, the result is everybody across all layers is working together to drive toward common goals. A CEO, no matter how smart she is, is no match for the smarts of everybody in the organisation working with each other at full potential.

Published by Lance Wiggs


3 replies on “Business lessons from the Kiwis World Cup victory”

  1. Fascinating piece Lance. Very perceptive and I think you’re right on the money.


  2. I’d like to echo what the other commentators said.

    Part of what you wrote about the Kiwis’ approach sounds to me like the leadership principle known as Auftragstaktik (“mission tactics”) – pioneered by the German army – which emphasizes leading by tasks rather than leading by orders.

    In Auftragstaktik, leaders set the general objectives and timeframes and provide the resources, but allow their subordinates to find their own creative ways of reaching the objectives. The key is for the higher level leader (the commander, CEO, coach) to relinquish control, and for subordinate leaders (subordinate officers, executives, players) to understand the intent of the commander and to exercise independence and initiative.


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