Are the All Blacks the most successful sports team in the history of sports? Any team, any sport, anywhere in the world? Some say so. The All Blacks (The New Zealand men's rugby team) are the best side to have ever played that sport; three times world champions, with a 77% win record stretching back 100 years. They have not lost on home soil since 2009.
How is this possible in a country with a population of less than 5 million (a little more than that of Los Angeles)? How does the team continuously renew itself to maintain that record over decades? How does it remain the most successful elite rugby team?
Of course, the way the sport is organized in New Zealand is a major factor. It is THE national sport, and many schoolboys dream of wearing the jersey. Schools and clubs play highly competitive rugby.
The population of England is more than ten times that of New Zealand. And the rugby authorities there have more money, better TV deals and more players to choose from for the national team. Yet, they hardly ever beat the All Blacks.
And because of this high level of competition locally, New Zealand produces some of the greatest rugby coaches.
And the role of the coach as leader in rugby is different from other sports. Why? With 15 players on the pitch from each side, and a continuously flowing rhythm bounded by two 40- minute halves, the players themselves are required to make dozens of key decisions each during any given match.
The coach provides the game plan, but the players need to make many small and large decisions all through the game. When to kick. When to pass. When to commit to the ruck. When to stand back. When to execute pre-planned plays. When to counter-attack. All these decisions are on-the-field decisions.
The current coach of the All Blacks is Steve Hansen. In the role since 2012, he has a 93% win record. Before becoming coach, he was assistant coach under Sir Graham Henry.
According to The Guardian, it was Henry, who along with Hansen and Wayne Smith, modified his leadership approach and gave ownership to the players.
“He established a group of four on-field leaders, who would get together with the coaches the night after a match to review it and plan for the next one, and three off it, who worked with the team manager, organising the squad’s schedule and helping ease in new players.”
This notion of shared leadership seems to be working for the All Blacks. The team has a maturity, confidence, and decision-making ability that is better than others. Hansen is comfortable giving authority and shared ownership of decisions off the field, because they are so good at it on the field.
Perhaps rugby is a sport where on-field leadership is a necessity for success. Leaders who can make the right call on the field in the moment. And the All Blacks, with their highly competitive schools and clubs, and their rich rugby heritage produce individuals who are exceptional at making those decisions.
And because the best of them are almost "coaches on the field", it is no surprise that Hansen has formalized shared leadership in to the culture of the team.