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Leadership Lessons from Sport: Rugby World Cup, 1995

I have never been greatly interested in sort (cricket aside).  Back in South Africa, my habitual lack of interest in most sports changed towards hostility to the game of rugby, which for so long was closely identified with the symbols and structure of apartheid. However, I vividly remember how, for a time in 1995 , it seemed that rugby might become what had previously been completely unimaginable – a unifying, nation-building interest that could cut across racial and ethnic divisions.

That his could have happened was largely the work of two men in particular – Nelson Mandela, who as president refused to bear any grudges against the history and political stances taken by the rugby administrators in times gone by, and instead threw his support behind the national team when the country hosted the game’s World Cup; and the South African rugby captain, Francois Pienaar, who likewise set aside the suspicion shown by many of his fellow Afrikaners towards our new president, and gladly accepted his support.  The national response was extraordinary.  People from all racial and political backgrounds began to try to understand the rules and subtleties of a game that most of the country had previously ignored, while the traditional rugby supporters adopted as a sporting anthem a rousing song, “Shosholoza“, which had been    previously been known as a song sung by black migrant workers – and had strong associations of workers pulling together to get a job done. When in an extraordinary dying seconds drama, the final ended in a home team victory, in their first world cup since readmission to world sport, the national mood was euphoric.

Sadly, the magic did not last. The memory however lived on, and was retold in a book by John Carlin, then turned into what looks like will be a highly successful file, “Invictus”. At NCR On-line, theologian Richard McBrien uses the film for a useful reflection contrasting the leadership styles of Nelson Mandela and that typically adopted by Catholic bishops – a contrast in which the bishops do not come out as good role models.

This is the opening of McBrien’s piece:

Clint Eastwood’s latest film, “Invictus” (Latin, “Unconquered”), stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa who served 27 years as a political prisoner in that country, and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the national rugby team that Mandela used — successfully — as a means to bring the racially divided nation together.

During his long years of incarceration, Mandela studied his Afrikaner enemies, not only learning their language but understanding the role that sports, especially rugby, played in their psyche.

Their national team, known as Springbok, was beloved by the whites and despised by the black population, to whom it had become a symbol of their oppression by the Afrikaner government. When Mandela’s supporters (modern political terminology would call them his “base”) demanded that the team be dismantled, renamed, and their colors and logo banned, Mandela balked, against the advice of some of his closest black advisers.

To follow the will of his base, he believed, would only confirm the fears of the Afrikaner minority that Mandela’s election in 1994 would initiate a period of revenge and recrimination. He wished instead to pursue a program of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Enlisting the team’s captain to his side, Mandela challenged Pienaar to turn his team’s losing ways around and to bring his players, as any good leader should, to exceed their present expectations.

The film, Newsweek critic David Ansen wrote, is about “strategic inspiration.”

“We witness a politician at the top of his game,” Ansen observed. “Freeman’s wily Mandela is a master of charm and soft-spoken gravitas.” It is a film, Ansen noted, that is “such a soul-searching story — one that would be hard to believe if it were fiction. The wonder of ‘Invictus’ is that it actually went down this way.”

It is not only Mandela who is shown exercising effective leadership. The captain of the Springboks is also adept at leadership. Even after his meeting with Mandela in the presidential office, Pienaar doesn’t force anything on his teammates.

He asks that they learn the lyrics of their new national anthem. When many of them strongly object, he doesn’t force the issue. He makes it clear, however, that he will be learning it. He works his team hard, and leads by showing himself as willing as the others to follow the new work ethic.

Read the full post at “What Effective Leadership Looks Like”


One Response

  1. If there was an image to be treasured from all the sporting achievements of the year, it was the sight of Nelson …

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