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After the Bell: Rassie is odd, but that may be his best leadership quality

After the Bell: Rassie is odd, but that may be his best leadership quality
Rassie Erasmus, the South Africa director of rugby. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

There is a kind of paradox of leadership, in which success and leadership get intermingled, and sometimes it is impossible to distinguish one from the other.

I have a question about leadership, and it’s not the one you might expect. What I want to know is this: How much bunk has been written on the topic over the years? And yet it persists; each and every year, more and more is written about leaders and leadership, and techniques of leadership. And most importantly, how to become one. 

One of the reasons the topic comes up now is the success of the Springbok rugby team and the slightly surprising emergence of Rassie Erasmus as an example of having the qualities of a great leader.  

Tony Norton, a lawyer and no mean leader himself, has written beautifully in Daily Maverick about “Rassie”. In a country beset by corruption, incompetence and widespread maladministration in virtually every aspect of the public sector, rugby is a beacon of hope that gives a neglected citizenry much-needed inspiration and optimism, he wrote.  

There is now a “folklore quality” about Erasmus, Norton wrote. “He has not only transformed South African rugby from the perspective of the merit-based racial demographics of the team and propelled Siya Kolisi’s career as the inspirational captain of the Springboks, but more fundamentally he has broken the mould irretrievably of the legacy of dyed-in-the-wool Springbok rugby coaches.” 

As a hopeful fan, I can appreciate that point, widely shared, I suspect, among the rugby cognoscenti. But I also have a caveat. There is a kind of paradox of leadership, in which success and leadership get intermingled, and sometimes it is impossible to distinguish one from the other.  

To put it another way, successful entities grant their leaders latitude to experiment and gather talent, which enhances their performance, which provides leaders with even more latitude, financial and otherwise, which allows them to gather talent. And so on.  

At some point, leaders are getting credit for things that their team is actually delivering, and they are floating on a kind of success cloud, which is — if we are being honest — partly rooted in luck, fortuitous timing and other people’s efforts.  

The other curiosity about leadership is that calibrations of success are fickle. Leaders who manage to make the best of a very difficult situation are seldom the subjects of books with flattering, black and white photographs on the cover. Nobody gets a prize for keeping the train on the tracks. There is an arbitrariness to the designation of leadership success which often gets obscured by circumstances totally outside the control of the people involved.  

And yet, in years of reporting, I often see the outlines of what I think of as great leadership, which only occasionally overlaps with actual, acknowledged success.  

It’s often said that there is a crucial difference between managerial leaders who are good at building skilled teams that execute well, and inspirational leaders who motivate their teams by example. There is a whole transactional system of leadership too, which is based on rewards and punishments, essentially designed to motivate through incentive. 

I think this is all a bit wrong. Leadership is not so easily systematised. I suspect great leaders actually have these qualities: they have to be a bit odd, a bit calculating and visibly motivated by higher ideals, both moral and transactional. 

You could see it in Nelson Mandela; his embrace of SA’s rugby team way back when was regarded as a pivotal political moment, and of course it was. But it was also out of the mainstream thinking in his own party, and broadly unpopular. Yet his higher voice was about creating nationhood, not about winning the support of his “base”, and that made it unimpeachable. He was also odd in other ways too; standing down after a single term as President, and so on.  

The thing that really impressed me about Erasmus in the current World Cup wasn’t the 7-1 issue so much; it was his sudden decision to come out in support of referees after a history of being critical of them for so long. Nice switch. You can see my three aspects of leadership at work: a bit odd, a bit calculating, and a bit about the higher ideal; it’s about the game, not about our game.  

“Rassie” may be viewed very differently after this weekend. Frankly, the odds are against him. But he will still rate in my book. I might be wrong about this, but I believe transformation is not possible if it’s done in a doctrinaire way by doctrinaire people. Change requires mavericks. It just does. DM

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  • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

    “I might be wrong about this, but I believe transformation is not possible if it’s done in a doctrinaire way by doctrinaire people. Change requires mavericks. It just does.”

    You are not wrong about this – good leaders often are a little eccentric and have maverick qualities. They themselves have to be “different” to be able to affect change. Rassie and Jaques are great – “cometh the time, cometh the man.”

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Who says Rassie’s odd?! He’s clearly Luno 😀

    We love you Rasterman, go get us that cup 😍

  • Alley Cat says:

    Leaders are born. One cannot learn to become a leader but books and training can enhance your skills. Rassie has always been from left field. I will always remember him sitting on the roof of the freestate rugby stadium with his array of lights. An innovator.
    He is what makes this team so successful!

    • Colin Donian says:

      Hi Alley Cat,
      Perhaps it depends on how one defines a ‘leader’.
      Since human #1 arrived certain people were tagged as ‘leaders’.
      In the beginning it was the strongest (physically), the ones with sharpest wit or gift of the gab.
      Later it was those who accumulated wealth and power, or sorcery.
      But in the 21st century we know that leadership is not a function of our biceps.
      So, what is leadership and by implication who are leaders in our current world?
      If you recognise that leadership is a skill (a capability) then it is learned to be practiced.
      Being left-field is not a skill, it is seeing the world in an unusual way and marching to ones own tune.
      Leadership is also not neutral. The intention, the process and the outcome must be productive (positive), that is why, for example, a narcissist or sociopath cannot be a leader, by definition.
      Too often we confuse leadership with other social constructs, such as management, direction, role, and so forth.
      For example, a CEO / country president / team captain / janitor might be a leader because of how they behave and what they achieve, but not because they are the CEO / pres / cpt / janitor – the two matters are independent.
      Lastly… we know from every human endeavour that people learn and practice to be anything – catching a rugby ball, managing, riding a bicycle, doing neurosurgery and flying an aeroplane.
      No one would suggest that a person is a born pilot so need not learn and practice before they take a 747 to the sky.

  • Colin Donian says:

    It is fantastic to read about leadership, leading and leaders in a real-world context, thank you.
    While there are many points to make, I shall limit myself to just two.
    1. Proper leadership is an Apex Skill, and because it is, there is a tendency to imagine it is something akin to alchemy. Furthermore, there is a sense that because it is an alchemy, it arises in some folk’s personalities, in their titles and positions. This is bunkum. A person becomes a leader through practicing leadership. Leadership (I do not refer to legacy forms and the way the term is used like confetti) is an acquired skill, a capability that is learned and developed like all skills. It just happens to sit at the apex of all social skills.
    2. So, what is this thing we so easily call “leadership”? Unless we know what we mean, it can be anything, then ends up as nothing. Almost without exception current usage is so loose that anything and anyone is leadership or a leader – the sociopath boss, the glib manager, the team captain, the president, the bully in the school yard, the chap with the gift of the gab. We end up having ‘leaders’ who do harm, who are corrupt and criminal, who build no monuments, who seek personal benefit over collective benefit. They are leaders?
    A few weeks ago Prof. Makgoba presented his new book, he correctly stated that South Africa is in a mess due to a lack of leadership.
    Most human conditions are in a mess because of a leadership gap.
    But, what is this thing?

  • Alpha Sithole says:

    Beautifully written… no matter the outcome on the weekend, I think you’ve nailed it.

  • Dr Kerryn Krige says:

    There is a great book by Prof Willem Fourie at UP “Why leaders fail and what it teaches us about leadership.” He takes a post-heroic approach to leadership, which is captured in the article. It is well worth a read

  • Rae Earl says:

    What Rassie has done better than most is to get the Springbok supporters and the public in general, to watch a team performing at its harmonious best. We do not see black or white players in this Bok team. There are hookers, wings, full backs etc etc. The world class captain of this Bok team is a past master at getting the team to work together as a team. We must salute them all from team management, coaches, and players down to support staff. They are a credit to our country in the face of a government which is unable to spell team. Win or lose on Saturday, they remain our heroes.

  • Anne Swart says:

    I fully agree with you Tim. I have enough decades observing people going about their business, and have come to understand it is those that bring a je ne sais quoi that separates the satin from the sheeting. In any event, what a refreshing change, an evolution, from the memories of Kamp Staaldraad.

    I was intrigued to read some of the players involved in that blight on our rugby history believe it was a good idea. A bit like abused children who might believe their upbringing was normal. I’m sure there is an appropriate German word for this phenomenon. Perhaps verdammt lächerlich.

    Anyway Rassie and the boys – we’re proud of you already. Now, show the world your talent and courage.

  • Peter Dexter says:

    Brilliant article Tim, not just about Rassie, but leadership. The book “Trust and Inspire” by Stephen Covey (Jnr) deals with a number of these issues. South Africa desperately needs inspirational leaders capable of “seeing the bigger picture” and “thinking out of the box.” Let’s hope Rassie has an innovative solution for Saturday.

  • Rae Earl says:

    What Rassie has done better than most is to get the Springbok supporters and the public in general, to watch a closely knit team performing at its best. We do not see black or white players in this Bok team. There are hookers, wings, full backs etc etc. A world class captain who is a past master at getting the team to work together as a team. We must salute them all from team management, coaches, and players down to support staff. They are a credit to our country in the face of a government which is unable to spell team. Win or lose on Saturday, they remain our heroes.

  • Enver Klein says:

    One of the most important traits of a leader is to build a legacy that will see the team perform long after he has gone. What Rassie has with this team has the makings of that …

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Rassie has done more for this country than the goverment ever could

  • M Msimanga says:

    In today’s world you can talk your way into leadership positions. Apparently you can be a good leader in an industry you know nothing about. This is the difference Rassie knows rugby and all he has done is create the right environment for the team to perform. There are too many smooth talkers who do not understand the nitty gritty of the businesses and government institutions they lead.

  • Dragon Slayer says:

    Leadership is about courage and luck – making what history, in retrospect, acknowledges as the right decisions, at the right time, for the right reasons. Winston Churchill is another prime example.

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