Posted by: mrlock | March 14, 2014

Leadership – a transferable skill?

The All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby union team, are arguably the most successful sports team in the world. They have achieved sustained success over a number of years. Their standards are world-class.

I recently read the book “Legacy” by James Kerr. It’s an effort to take lessons in leadership from the All Blacks. This post is my way of reflecting on what I read and to look at my leadership and how it might develop. I’m sorry about the ever-present ego!

I should also point out that I read this book as it is our work book group book of the month – an idea that originated from SLTcamp.

I got home and immediately bought a brand new posh paper pad from Tesco (I recognise to some that might be an oxymoron). It was bound and had space for pens and business cards and stuff like that. And it wasn’t just lines inside, there was space for dates and stuff like that.

On the first page I planned to write my goals for my career. What do I really want to achieve? And how aspirational can I be?

In the book there is reference to the goals of Steve Jobs, JP Morgan, and many others who have aimed not just high, but highest. As a result I wrote an aim:

To have positively affected the life chances of poor people across the world.

It is far far greater as an aim than I’ve ever thought about before, is far longer term than I’ve ever thought about before (but is hence reflected high immediate personal aspirations) and it relates to the impact a group of people who get schooling right can have on huge numbers of young people via the example. My school sent 12 students to China for 10 days a week ago, and the message was that the Chinese want to learn from us! I just don’t think we have enough to teach them yet and we should have.

This relates to a discussion I had with another blogger. This person said words to the effect of:

“Nelson Mandela is my inspiration. Mandela had to battle through unimaginable personal and political hell, and had to change a monolith of a state and a world’s attitudes – we just need to run a school differently to the nonsense that goes on now”.

I’m sure he’ll read this and can comment if he thinks I’ve got it wrong. In any case, I said that I thought that running a school was not comparable and that the difference with Mandela’s experience was too vast and makes the comparison fairly meaningless. But on reflection, maybe I’m not aiming high enough. I mean, if Nelson Mandela can change the world despite the circumstances he found himself in…

The theory behind my aiming so high (and I only wrote that aim two days ago, so I may edit it yet) is that we are actually highly motivated by fear of failure, so aiming high is very motivating. Even if we don’t get there, we get higher than if we aim lower. I suppose it’s a version of reach for the stars and if you miss at least you’re on top of the world – though that makes me cringe somewhat.

We had a Year 9 assembly at our school led by a young person who had recently completed her doctorate, had achieved incredible things representing Great Britain in two sports, has become friends with Prince William, and jets off as a consultant to all parts of the world. She is also in the Army. She came from a single parent family (one of our support staff is her Mum!) and an area like the one our students grow up in. She ended the assembly by saying “I am giving up the Army, because I am going into politics, and because I aspire to be world class, I expect to be Prime Minister”. I walked out thinking “well she could”.

As Kerr says

It pays to hoist our sights if we aspire to be world class: to create for ourselves a narrative of extreme, even unrealistic ambition. It doesn’t even matter if it’s true, or reasonable, or possible; it only matters that we do it. In this way we set our internal and team benchmarks to the ultimate.

Other things I learnt from the book:

  1. There’s no job too small – here I was quite pleased with some of my practice. For example, I make a point of washing up my own cups (to some people’s disgrace I clean my coffee machine and cups at the start of every day rather than when I go home) and make my own coffee. I’ve heard a lot about the humility of Level 5 leadership recently, and I think a part of this has to be to stop yourself from believing there are jobs you are too big for. I think this can manifest itself in Senior or Middle Leaders believing that an INSET session is beneath them (something that together with the lack of practice that can be a part of meaning they become some of the weakest teachers in school) – unless they are running it. In other cases it might be that things like running detentions or making phone calls to parents are things they don’t need to do but others do. I recognise that a leader’s time needs to be prioritised – they can’t do everything, but the priority should not be because they see themselves as too big. I know I’ve fallen into this trap before. The phrase Kerr uses with reference to the All Blacks is “Sweep the Sheds”. I like the quote that is used: The kumara (sweet potato) does not need to say how sweet he is.
  2. A reminder that a part of leadership is changing early and that organisational performance inevitably declines after time. This is something I learnt a few years ago but wasn’t sure if I believed. However, I know that one needs to plan how to adapt when we are at the top of our game, rather than when things have already gone wrong. The best leaders always seem to be planning how to get even better. This is the lesson of the Sigmoid curve.
  3. Command and control style leadership is increasingly inefficient. This is an important thing for me to learn as a leader. I have a large ego. I’ve come to accept it. My colleague today said that I tend to try to hide this away (unsuccessfully). I think that’s true. In Good to Great by Jim Collins (I haven’t read it, it is next), Collins argues that Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs into building the organisation they lead, rather than building themselves. I understand this, and think it’s a really important lesson – a devolved management structure develops a team of leaders willing to fight for the team.
  4. “The first stage of learning is silence. The second is listening”.
  5. “No dickheads” (All Blacks) – The strength is in the team, no-one is bigger than the team, and if someone is working against your organisation, you must get them out. There are all sorts of caveats I could put in here, but actually, I think leaders can be too reluctant to actually do this.
  6. It’s really important to understand how the brain works to reduce stress in high pressured situations. I need to continue to develop a rational outlook. This comes from practicing a three point mantra. In schools this might be: Assess the situation, Check previous preparation/ scenarios, Act
  7. Honesty and Integrity are vital. I was quite pleased with this part of the book. I think it’s the reason I wrote this post and this post on my vision and values for headship. It has to come back to values.
  8. I need to think more about work-life balance. The book suggests it’s not possible to have one. It suggests that if you’re really going to be exceptional, it’s the organisation first, and family second. This is a very hard message, but seems hard to get away from. I was shocked by John Tomsett’s post on missing his son growing up. My friend Joe said that he read an article that said that one of the things people most often say when they’re about to die is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”. I hear about leaders needing to model a work-life balance so that staff don’t work themselves out of education. I recognise that working very hard and long hours sends a subliminal  message of “you can’t be as good as me unless you work this hard”. At the same time, education is my job and my hobby. I really will not do anything else as a job. But saying “family second” is such a hard thing to say. This being written starkly, as something you can’t get away from, was hard to read in the book. I certainly need to come back to it.
  9. There is a tale in there that’s probable rubbish, but I really need to do. It alleges that the famous banker JP Morgan once agreed to pay  $25000 dollars for an envelope if he agreed that it contained the secrets of success. He opened the envelope and paid. The envelope contained the following advice: 1. Every day write down the things that need to be done. 2 Do them. I need to get better at 2. 
  10. You need to plant trees you’ll never see.

The last one is what I want to do in my professional life.

Go and read Legacy and let me know what you think.


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. “It suggests that if you’re really going to be exceptional, it’s the organisation first”

    Fascinating post.

    “Exceptional” involves a number of value judgements.

    I believe “exceptional” is the person who has the courage to follow through on their values. The perosn who decides to teat their family as second best and carry the consequences is exceptional. The person who decides that there is more to life than career and dedicate more of their valuable lifespan to other than the organisation is for me just as exceptional.

    As long as an individual doesn’t expect others to pick up the tab then I am impressed.

    Then of course there is the issue of exceptional performance vs exceptional life ethic etc.

    Thought provoking post.

    Thank you


  3. Loved point 5. The real problem here is when you have one of those as a leader!

    Certainly lots to think about – and I was looking for a good read over the spring break.


  4. […] Edssential article from @StuartLock : […]


  5. […] Stuart Lock pointed me in the direction of James Kerr’s book, Legacy, on how the All Blacks succeed. This blogpost summarises what leaders can learn about cultivating a strong culture. […]


  6. […] Stuart Lock pointed me in the direction of James Kerr’s book, Legacy, on how the All Blacks succeed. This blogpost summarises what leaders can learn about cultivating a strong culture. […]


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