The world will become oval shaped later this year, when Britain hosts the Rugby World Cup. As a once keen (but not particularly talented) player and avid England supporter, I’ve always admired the virtues of the game and I passionately believe that the values of rugby can help to bond communities and inspire businesses to achieve more while, at the same time, enjoying life. It is all a game after all.

I thought that World Cup year would be the perfect opportunity to look at some of sports most successful teams, the smart things they do to stay at the top of their game and see what lessons we could learn.

When Graham Henry took over as manager of the All Blacks after a failed 2003 campaign he set about rebuilding the world’s most successful rugby team. He placed emphasis on individual character and personal leadership, their mantra being “Better people make better All Blacks”. I’d add “make better doctors, lawyers, leaders, friends, brothers and fathers.”

When Stuart Lancaster stepped in as interim manager after England’s disastrous world cup in 2011, it was the culture he turned to first. “Get the culture right” he said, “and the score looks after itself”.

Sir Clive Woodward is famous for being a maverick and risk taker in his management style, but became more famous for managing the first Northern Hemisphere team to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in 2003.

It’s from these men (and more) that I’ve taken inspiration.

1. No dickheads allowed!
I loved it when I read that the All Blacks Rugby team have a mantra of “No dickheads”. They recruit on character as well as talent and, as a result, some of New Zealand’s best players will never pull on an All Black jersey because they’re considered ‘dickheads’ and detrimental to Whanau (the Maori word for ‘extended family’).

The current England side under Stuart Lancaster talk about “band of brothers” meaning that no one player is bigger than the team.

In the world of creativity, it’s very easy to lose sight of this philosophy and allow egos to dominate thinking. A good creative leader, is that someone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously, laughs at their own expense and is constantly experimenting, If people have big egos and mock others for trying new things they will stifle creativity.

Put all your energy into recruiting the right people, trust your gut and be happy to hold out for the right person. To quote Apple’s Dan Jacobs : “Better a hole than an arsehole”!

2. Set explicit standards

Sir Clive Woodward called these critical non essentials. He expected everyone to dress smartly,use mobile phones only in their own rooms and run on ‘Lombardi time” (Inspired by Vince Lombardi famed coach of the Green Bay Packers) whereby everyone arrived at a meeting 10 minutes early. The belief being that Champions need to behave like Champions before they can become champions. He did not police these standards, instead the team self-appointed “Governors” to deal with any breaches.

The All Blacks talk about ’total accountability’ through actions not words. The team players set their watches 10 minutes fast so they are never late. In order to ensure that one of their core values of humility runs ‘bone deep’, they ’sweep the sheds’ so, at the end of a game, you’ll find some of the world’s most famous players sweeping and cleaning the changing rooms.

There are only three partners at Upping Your Elvis. We are all good friends and have worked with each other for well over 10 years. After a certain period you can get a little lazy with each other and let standards slip. So we are explicit with our standards and we only really have two of them: a) We’re never late to anything and b) when we’re in any face to face meeting with anyone, there is no ‘technology’ visible.

In business I see meetings regularly starting late, people answering phones during conversations, laptops up when other people are presenting.

Ask yourself what standards should you set that would make a big difference to the way you operated?

3. Have a shared higher purpose

Last year I read a National Geographic article on the secrets of longevity. The writer had travelled the globe researching the habits and lifestyles of centenarians. There were lots of  lessons for a longer life but coming in at number one was having a clear sense of purpose. The Japanese call this ‘Ikigia’ which means “your reason for getting up in the morning”. The easier you can articulate your Ikigia the longer and more fulfilled your life.

Stuart Lancaster tapped into this when he took over the England team. He asked all the parents to write to their sons telling them what it meant to have them playing for England. He also got ex-players to write down what it meant to them to represent their country. Stuart knew that, if he could tap into a ‘higher purpose’, the team would perform better because it meant more to everyone involved.

The All Blacks talk about ‘leaving the jersey in a better place than you found it’ reminding you that when you put on the jersey you’re representing all those who have gone before you as well as those who follow – you’re part of a legacy.

I think that businesses rarely tap into a ‘higher purpose’ to motivate its people. Inductions into business are usually a dull and laborious 2 days of Health &Safety. I see this induction period as a fantastic opportunity to help people connect with the culture and history.

My old agency did this brilliantly. Every couple of months they’d put all new employees on the ‘magic bus’, hosted by the two founding partners. They told the 20 year story of the business while driving round and visiting the important places in the company’s history – from the front room where they set up shop, to the café where they came up with the name of the business, to their first office. It was a great way to bring people in and connect them with who we were and what we stood for.

Consider what your version of this ‘tour’ could look like and engage your team in a higher purpose.

4. Always learning, always growing

Very much like the Sky cycling team’s philosophy of ‘marginal gains’, this is all about finding incremental ways to do better. Sky focusses on continual improvement and have created a strong learning environment.

Clive Woodward talks about ‘teachability’ which is the awareness and thirst to grow and develop and take on feedback.

We are all brands and, whether we like it or not, people judge us based on how we show up and act accordingly. The best creative leaders have an awareness of their personal brand and are constantly demanding feedback on what they are good at and where they can improve.
I’m always impressed when a leader asks for feedback, it sends a strong message that you’re constantly looking to move forward and develop.

Stimulate, challenge and encourage feedback amongst your people and you’ll energise them to achieve greater, extra things.

5. Prepare for the pressure

One of Sir Clive’s key selection criteria for his 2003 world cup winning side was based on an individual’s ability to perform under pressure. His analogy was TCUP. ‘Thinking correctly under pressure’.

After their failed 2005 World cup the All Blacks worked with a forensic psychiatrist to help them understand how the brain works under pressure. The language they now use is;
Red head; Unresourceful, off task, panicked and ineffective.
Blue head; Optimal, on task and therefore operates at best ability.
The players then devised their own ‘triggers’ to help switch from Red to Blue during a game.

Humans are not designed to operate under pressure so they need to get used to it. England Rugby have a ‘war room’ where they encourage role play by giving match scenarios to players while under physical duress. The All Blacks are famous for training harder on a Thursday than the Saturday game.

We believe that the ‘state’ you are in at any given moment has more impact than your ability. If you were to come on one of our week long ‘Mastery for creative champions’ workshops you’d see that the big breakthroughs are around awareness of state and simple techniques to help maintain state when things don’t go to plan. (We also have an Apple App to help you monitor and change your state).

In business it can be very easy to fall into habits and routines.

So beware ‘business as usual’ when things can become comfortable and stale. Inject some freshness into the way you work. Plan in some surprises perhaps? Keep people guessing, keep them on their toes (in a good way) and inevitably they’ll become more energised and resourceful.

These are just a few examples of how sport and business have some synchronicity but I believe that business can learn much more from sport than vice versa. As I said at the beginning, it’s a big year for sport in the UK so why don’t we combat negative threats of another global recession by making it a big year for business too?

Jim Lusty

As seen in

  • Fast Company
  • Gq Seeklogo Com
  • Harvard Business Review
  • The Guardian
  • The Sunday Times
  • Business Life