Last weekend’s World Cup rugby win by the Springboks over the All Blacks left a lingering bittersweet taste. The sweetness happened as the final whistle blew to mark the Springboks triumph, and the bitter came from another realisation that dawned soon thereafter.
Before I get to the bitter, let me start with a secret that even some of my closest friends don’t know. I am not a fan of sports. I generally only watch games in which clients of mine are playing, and World Cup play-offs. I am a big fan of is what sport can teach us about life.
Individually, it teaches essential life lessons such as building character, values, ethics, excellence and being a team player. It can also be a brutal guide to dealing with pressure, nerves, fear, success, and failure. Collectively, it teaches the influence of leadership on culture, and how this directly impacts players mindsets and the results that sprout from it. And it has the potential to transcend these lessons.
This was best captured by Nelson Mandela when he said,
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does”.
First, let’s delve deeper into what it means to embody excellence in the world of sports.
Over two decades working at the highest level of sports has given me deep insight into what excellence really looks like, and what it takes to arrive there. The great performances we see on screen only happen because of the years of unenviable and the often unglamourous underbelly of hardship, sacrifice, dedication, injury, disappointment, despair, loneliness, and even depression that precedes it. Excellence is like the proverbial iceberg. The part above water that the public sees is small and mostly glamorous. The much larger part that sits under the water is often cold, dark and messy.
The nature of excellence in sport also means that only a certain number of players are selected in the squad – 33 players in the case of the Springboks at the World Cup. If a player is not quite good enough or doesn’t pull their weight in the team, they are dropped. There were excellent and dedicated international-level rugby players who were deemed not good enough to be at the World Cup. This is an important point that I’ll loop back to.
Both the Springbok and All Black rugby teams embody this type of excellence. Even before the game started, both were champion teams, or more accurately, both teams comprised 23 Champions, regardless of who would score more points on the night.
The Springboks had something else though.
Playing for a greater purpose
I’m not sure how many rugby pundits and arm-chair experts I listened to as they tried to explain how the Boks beat England, France and then the All Blacks in the play-offs, all by only one point. This, after the Boks were outplayed by all three teams, in literally every measurable statistic, except for the scoreboard.
Under the leadership of Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and Siya Kolisi, the Springboks had a purpose that extended beyond winning a trophy. They were playing to bring hope to a nation that faced many daily struggles, some for mere survival. In doing this, they unearthed a well of inspiration that fuelled their relentless and heroic fight, despite being dominated by their opponents, in search of that one extra point.
In return the people of South Africa rallied behind their team beyond what the average fan normally would. Schools, business and universities had Bok Fridays, where literally millions of people went to work or school in Springbok colours. Social media exploded with well-wishes from every corner of the country, and from the full diversity of race, religion, and language. The team was celebrated long before they won the trophy.
It’s been said that the smart sports teams do not rely purely on results for fan following – they stand for something greater – for something that transcends results and that wins hearts, regardless of the scoreboard.
Let’s go back to that first World Cup win in 1995, not long after a racially divided apartheid South Africa transitioned to a new democratic nation. Back then, it would take one of the greatest leaders in modern history to prevent a civil war that was brewing and widely predicted. At that same time, rugby was one of the bastions of apartheid and was in no way an aspirational sport for the 50-odd million non-white south Africans.
Then-President Nelson Mandela united the country through his remarkable character, vision, forgiveness and leadership. He spoke of sports power to change a nation and he embraced the Springbok emblem. Captain Francois Pienaar and his 1995 team’s response was to further unite South Africans by winning the World Cup – by beating New Zealand in the final.
Fast-forward to the 2023 Springbok rugby team. They were never tasked to serve the nation, their job is to train hard, play rugby, and ideally win games.
The people tasked to serve the nation, and who are elected and paid to do just that, are politicians. South African politicians, with a few exceptions, are the antithesis of excellence. The majority are bankrupt of the value that sport teaches, like character, values, ethics, discipline, excellence, and trust. The result of this moral bankruptcy and antithesis of excellence leaves a bitter taste for many South Africans who are living through the country’s wholly unnecessary decline. Our country’s politicians are the architects of the very struggles that the Springboks were playing to alleviate and provide hope. This realisation led to that bitter taste.
Rassie, Jacques, Siya, and the Springbok players exemplified purpose-driven leadership. In comparison, when one takes a glance at any political gathering, even without hearing their rhetoric, what’s most noticeable is a pervasive bloatedness that screams of gluttony.
When a rugby player drops the ball too many times, misses too many tackles or carries a little too much body fat, they get dropped. Rugby has selectors who oversee this. When politicians drop the ball, miss a tackle, lie, steal, mismanage, under-perform – and the public knows full well about this – they keep their job. Even get promoted.
When the team was presented the Web Ellis World Cup on stage and in front of the world, team director Rassie Erasmus exemplified one type of leadership by standing at the very back of the group, behind all the players.
In contrast, our country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa stood front and centre – and proceeded to take the trophy from the captain and raise it above his own head – before any other player got to touch it. Watching this made me feel the same way I might if I was watching a paedophile handing out certificates at a kinder garden sports awards ceremony.
I won’t blame anyone for wanting to blow the whistle for a ‘time out’ so that the video referee can assess whether my comment above is offside. While we wait for that call, let’s quickly look at what happens when a motivational speaker delivers an inspiring talk at a company conference. Attendees become excited and feel motivated to improve themselves. In most cases however, this motivation wanes within a day or two.
I have a genuine concern that a similar thing may occur with the impact of the World Cup win. The heroic nation-building spirit displayed by the rugby team could diminish in the face of daily frustrations – many of these stemming directly from leadership that starkly contrasts what we experienced during the World Cup.
It suspect that many readers will have felt deflated or angry since my first mention of the word politicians. I certainly did every time I proofread this piece. These emotions are fuel for change, but change requires more than just fuel.
Call to action
How can we as a nation – actually, how can you as an individual ensure that you actively move the needle of our country in a positive direction? What action can you take towards the dream of unity that the Springboks showed is possible? If 23 rugby players and some support staff could do so much good, imagine what a few hundred thousand or even a few million citizens could do?
How will you further enhance the power of diversity that sits inside or at the edges of your circles of influence? In what way can you play for something greater or more purposeful than money or status or some metaphorical trophy?
One simple way is to embrace our role as selectors and to drop players who underperform. In the last 2019 general election, less than 50% of South African citizens eligible to vote actually voted!
Personally, I’ve asked the question ‘what does my one vote count anyway?’, and not voted. Going forward, I commit to add my voice (vote) to the selection process. Please add your voice – even a vote of no confidence matters.
If you are a politician, please take a leaf out of the Boks book. Or Nelson Mandela’s way. He was one of the greatest gifts to the democratisation of this country – let’s honour that gift. What chance one of the opposition parties can bring excellence and genuine nation-serving leadership to the table? Or maybe ruling ANC has some politicians who can rise from within its rotten core?
Putting politicians aside, what actions will you take? And if you feel so inclined, please share your idea or commitment in the comments below.