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Siya Kolisi: Rugby, Leadership and The Power of One

Siya Kolisi: Rugby, Leadership and The Power of One
Siya Kolisi of South Africa celebrates after the team's victory during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Grand Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade de France on 28 October 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo: Franco Arland / Getty Images)

Over the past week, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi has shown some leadership qualities that only tangentially had to do with the actual winning of the games.

Last week, I wrote about the leadership qualities of SA’s director of rugby and former national team coach Rassie Erasmus. But honestly, no examination of leadership in this Rugby World Cup campaign would be complete without including that of Springbok captain Siya Kolisi. 

Now, I know, Kolisi is not short of praise and good press. Fans like winning captains just as night follows day. Of course they do — it’s natural. But over the past week, Kolisi has shown some leadership qualities that only tangentially had to do with the actual winning of the games. 

My conclusion about Erasmus’ leadership style was that he’s a bit odd, a bit calculating and he has a sense of a higher order. These are not leadership characteristics you often find in books, but I think many leaders have these qualities. Over the past week, some experts in leadership have contacted me with ideas and disagreements and, honestly, it’s been edifying. As I noted before, leadership is a slippery and multifaceted concept. 

But it does strike me that Kolisi’s leadership qualities are very different and no less valuable than those of Erasmus. In some ways, they are quite conventional, and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. 

Consider two moments: The first is when the final whistle is blown in the match on Saturday. Kolisi runs right across the field to hug Cheslin Kolbe. Kolbe, as we all know, was sent off for the final 10 minutes of the game after instinctively lashing out at the ball as it was flying past him, in what the TMO judges considered a deliberate deflection.  

It was a harsh decision, but that seems to have been the trend of the night. All Blacks captain Sam Cane was red-carded, no less for a highish tackle on Jesse Kriel. A yellow card, perhaps, but a red card seemed harsh. The point is that Kolbe, who has been magical on the field for the entire tournament, must have felt then that he had single-handedly lost the game for the Springboks. Kolbe couldn’t bear to watch; he spent most of the 10 minutes hiding his head under his shirt.  

Kolisi sensed this, and his first admirable act on winning the game was to rush across the field to lift the head and relieve his stress and anxiety of his teammate.  

Read more: We won! Springboks’ joy as they beat All-Blacks in Rugby World Cup final

The second incident came during the post-match interview in which he was congratulated on the back-to-back wins and asked to “tell me about this moment for you”. The first words out of his mouth were not about his actions or even those of his team, but about his opponents. “I want to give credit to the All Blacks, they took us to the end … with a man down,” and so on.  

I know it is a trope of post-match press conferences to give some consolation to the losing team; I presume team captains are taught this stuff. But because of something in the phraseology or the delivery, Kolisi was convincing. The obvious point is that he has real empathy and, you know, that’s a wonderful thing. 

But it’s also a leadership thing. For all of the high praise of leadership qualities heaped on people who are a little cruel and often mean, it’s refreshing to see the opposite at work; the value of empathy and kindness. Perhaps there is a role for hard-headedness in business and a different kind of role for empathy in team sports. Leadership, as I was trying to point out, is a varied thing, and often situational.  

There is a bit more too; in the same post-match interview, Kolisi managed, in the space of less than two minutes, to explain what the win meant for South Africans and South Africa now, in its rather battered state: 

“Our country goes through such a lot. We are bearing that hope that they have…” 

Children of the developing world working together to make things possible, on the field or in the office, it shows what we can do, etc. It was all there. He just seemed born for that moment: proud and humble. Hard to pull off if it is not genuine.  

All of the politicians are going to jump on this victory; you just know it. EFF lieutenant-general Julius Malema suddenly became a rugby fan. Who knew? He saluted “his” captain, Kolisi, as though he had appointed him. President Cyril Ramaphosa will address the nation, otherwise known as climbing on the bandwagon, on Monday. And so on. But you know, honestly, these political leaders should be studying at the feet of these sportsmen, not trying to subsume their achievements.  

Australian author Bryce Courtenay a long time ago wrote a book called The Power of One, which was essentially a coming-of-age story about a misfit South African boxer. But the underlying question was whether one person can really make a difference, and his conclusion was equivocal, but broadly supportive. The book came to mind obviously because of the importance of the quantity and quality of “one” in this rugby tournament. But also because the role of individuals in a team is so tricky to tease apart.  

However, at least in a single respect — leadership — Kolisi has shown us something of the Power of One. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ismail Lagardien says:

    Seriously, Tim. Since 1950s/60s “winning teams” in the USA have visited the White House. Maybe it started with 1962 Boston Celtics. Hockey team that needed a “miracle on ice” met Jim Carter…. Bears, Lakers… All visited the White House. Of course, none of the US presidents can ever be accused (in a pejorative way) of climbing on the band wagon. I may be wrong. For what it’s worth. I am not a supporter of the ANC, nor a voter,!

    • Steve Davidson says:

      As usual, please could you put whatever you’re trying to say in ‘normal’ English and make some sense.

    • Mike C says:

      Dear me, you really need to get over yourself!

      The wins in life for nations are few and far between, take the time out to wallow in the moment…… it’s going to a while before another one comes along.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      Visiting the White House post a World Series win (played in one country) is a ritual started years ago, as you’ve said. Cyril going to Paris for the World Cup Final is expected, as head of state, and not unique to rugby (our other codes just haven’t got there yet!). I don’t see the article quibbling with this – more that politicians who share none of the qualities of Siya Kolisi will blindly and arrogantly bask in the associated glory of a winning team without any reflection on their own shortcomings as supposed ‘leaders’. Perhaps re-read the piece: Tim is neatly and carefully juxtaposing Kolisi’s humility, respect and dedication against the bombast, arrogance and lethargy of our political elite.

      • Ismail Lagardien says:

        I don’t disagree on Siya… Just really exhausted/exasperated by double standards and knee-jerk responses. Some people can make mistakes all day and every day, and we have to accept, be patient, tolerate, understand context, be kind, what about reconciliation … and then others (as in my own experience and experiences of so many others) make one mistake, or dare to do what others have done and, you know, they’re intrinsically evil, untrustworthy not worthy of respect. It’s easier to understand that Malema has climbed on the bandwagon because he has rarely been kind to/about any non-Africans and loathes the presence of whites in South Africa, now skielik he is on the bandwagon. Maybe it’s a genuine damoclean moment, benefit of the doubt, but Ramaphosa is president, he has to be presidential. It’s what they do. Unless it’s okay for every US president or late queen (who met football players) but not for South African president. To be clear, I am a completely, unwavering loyal friend of Tim’s. I am loyal and respectful of friends who defend me when I am not I’m the room (…)

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          I don’t detest and despise Ramaphosa and the governing party he leads because of their ‘mistakes’. Quite the contrary, it’s because of all of their thousands of entirely self interested intentional actions over the last 25 plus years that have brought us to this low point. Neither he, nor any member of his cosplay government could legitimately claim an iota of credit for what the Boks have achieved.

        • D'Esprit Dan says:

          I think we’re on the same side on this one – I 100% agree that Cyril has to be there, I said that up front, and agree 100% about Malema, who from memory was disparaging about the Boks in 2019. I think we’re approaching the same point from different points!

          • D'Esprit Dan says:

            It was actually Mbuyiseni Ndlozi who had the initial, puerile rant after 2019, but was backed by the dummy-spitter-in-chief afterwards. So, in 2019, the Boks represented white oppression, Kolisi was part of it and nobody should celebrate. Fast forward four years to an EFF that is struggling for relevance so badly that even the ANC is looking to boot them into touch, and suddenly Siya and the Boks are brilliant. The flip-flop hypocrisy of the EFF, masquerading as ‘revolutionary fire’ is so pathetic and cringeworthy, they must hope that their supporters have goldfish memories!

  • Jeanné Stopforth says:

    Spot on praise for Siya. I would live to see him take up Politics. We need people like him.

    • Garth Kruger says:

      agree with you 100% Jeanne. I would vote for any party that would field our sporting heros. Folks with backbone and integrity.

    • Helen Swingler says:

      We do indeed, but I think he would be lost on politics, Jeanne, much like Dr Imtiaz Sooliman of Gift of the Givers. They do best working outside the stifling structures of cadre politics. It’s territory where they can move quickly and decisively and really make an immediate difference. So while we desperately need good people in politics, people like Captain Kolisi and Dr Sooliman (in my view) are more comfortable among the people and with the people where reality keeps them truly grounded and where their leadership skills shine.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Correct me if I am wrong here, but didn’t The Cucumber in Chief come out all guns blazing (not proven, granted, yet) after the last win in 2019, denigrating Siya and the Sprongboks? And now he is flip-flopping again, as if none of us remember that hateful and shameful attack on the team?
    Why is that oxygen thief allowed the airtime to spew his vitriol in such a magnificent, unifying moment?
    Can’t we leave Siya and his boys (and ladies in the sup0prt staff) that gave up their lives over the last 3 months to get them to this point? I get Cyril being there as head of state and as wonderful precedent set by Mandela, but really, to include any claptrap emanating from Malema’s forked tongue should not even be aired. The joy belongs to the team. And to the millions of people that played their part in the wonderful spirit of unified support in South Africa and all over the world.

  • Jennifer Snyman says:

    Yes, his grace and genuineness. I have been thinking how you never get the sense that anything he says is rehearsed. He is such an inspiration.

  • Siya Kolisi is a person of consequence and a wonderful human-being!

    • bossebriony says:

      I completely agree with your sentiments on Siya Kolisi. He is a wonderful example of a human being with true empathy and leadership skills to boot. His story brings hope to so many and in his role as captain of our rugby team, he has been a fantastic ambassador for South Africa.

  • Estelle Coustas says:

    I’ve always battled with the images people associate with the use of the word “servant” in SL, but have never come across a person who demonstrates the value of this style of leadership as Siya does

  • Jennifer Duncan says:

    We have emerged from the most wonderful weekend during which men of dignity, integrity and character brought us together as one. Siya particularly showed what true leadership is about: always acknowledging the coaches, the team and family before accepting praise as an individual. It’s a case study in leadership and one we could benefit from as a nation were we to adopt it.

  • cjg grobler says:

    The Springboks embraced qualities that the ANC government doesn’t know exist;
    Hard work
    Team work black and white
    A vision
    to name but a few.
    Let this team run the country!

  • Derek Jones says:

    Well said Tim. The inspiration that Kolisi is trying to illuminate might be this… it is not only a political solution…I think what he is saying is we can ALL work together, and if we do, magic is possible. I take the advice as a personal challenge.

  • Jennifer D says:

    Congratulations to a brilliant representation of true South African spirit and we do have spirit – and fight and courage.
    In an attempt to force racial integration, the government has forced employment of all races and importantly, has flooded government with people who were previously disadvantaged. On top of that, they strengthened the labour laws to ensure that people could not be easily dismissed (whether they were poor performers or not). The outcome is that we have millions of under performing or non performing people in the economy and this has had a material effect on business and on government services. By allowing poor performance, that is what we have. The Springboks cannot keep a poor performer on board and if they had, they would have lost. One weak link destroys the team, their spirit and the company collapses. It is a lesson to the ANC, if we want to win, it’s time for inclusion, not exclusion and it’s time to take on winning South Africans, give jobs to people who want to win and let the South African spirit make us a winning country. People like Malema with us intense hatred should be left in the dust, because inherently South Africans do not need the poison of someone like him to win.

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    I am a great admirer of Bruce Springsteen & one of his refrains is that ‘no one wins, unless we all win’
    The Springboks figured that it wasn’t enough for the the team to win – our Country needed to feel what it was like to win & what it takes to win. In other words, what they were their for, & doing, was for a higher purpose.
    They showed what can be achieved by humbling yourself, respecting one another & working together. That whilst Politicians seek to divide us & create an ‘us & them’ – common values, vision & purpose, can achieve ‘greatness’
    Our Politicians are actually hating this moment – because it shines a spotlight on their own negative, destructive, short-sighted, selfish behavior.
    This moment we are all experiencing right now – what Siya & the team have shown & taught us – will probably be lost in a week’s time.
    We will get a Public Holiday tossed at us like it is some kind of reward & the very next day we will go back to our standard diet of division, lies & mediocrity from persons not fit to clean Siya’s boots

    • Wilfred Walker says:

      I agree fully that the politicians (almost without exception) in this country have brought nothing but shame and embarrassment to this country, while the exact opposite is what this rugby team and all the support staff and coaches have done over the last five years, for us as a nation.
      I for one will not be watching Ramaphosa’s TV appearance tonight.

  • Peter Turner says:

    It seems to me Siya Kolisi’s leadership is epitomised by humbleness and selflessness – I salute him and the whole squad – what an awesome achievement. I also want to believe that had they actually lost in that final moment, the appreciation for what they have done for South Africa over the last six weeks and much longer would be no less.

  • Alastair Sellick says:

    Love it.
    Great writing, Tim.
    Thank you.
    Thank you Siya.
    Thank you Springboks.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    In my humble opinion, empathy and kindness are characteristics ALL leaders should have, irrespective of the field/sector they are leaders in.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    I do agree. The big difference between Siya and the current crop of political leaders is despite most being spotted and given opportunity, Siya has had to put mind, body and soul on the line with extremely hard work to get where he has, not share allocations. He has beyond all others managed to transcend the cultural differences we have and get everyone behind the whole team. For once, race has not been an issue. He has not allowed his extremely under priveleged upbringing (in developed world terms) blunt his outlook or curb his collective achievement. I felt almost sorry for CR, as he was dwarfed by leadership interlect and actual achievement on that stage. Siya knows that success is only going to be achieved on merit at every level.

  • dave mccullough says:

    Great article Tim. The power of one! Imagine Siya endorsed a new coalition political party for 2024. The power of his influence could easily secure a majority for a new governing party that could lead like he has. Imagine the hope for our nation if we harnessed his power beyond rugby?

  • Mike C says:

    Top article thanks Tim, the leadership qualities demonstrated by Siya are a breath of fresh air in a global community dominated by straw men – where the Peter Principle meets the Dunning-Kruger Effect ……. the magnanimity he and his team have demonstrated on reaching the pinnacle of World Rugby is a lesson to us all.

    To all those apologists for the ruling classes trying to extract some sense-of-purpose by basking in the reflected glow from our Bok team, hah! dream on ……..great nations progress in spite of – rather than because of – their governments ….. this sporting achievement and team will be remembered long after those politicians are consigned to the dustbin of history.

  • johan.vanemmenis584 says:

    Superb article!
    Thank you

  • Uwe Böbs says:

    One big thing that “analysts”, punters and reporters miss is the fact that Siya is a praying man, a man who trusts and prays to our God Almighty.
    In my opinion, THIS is the difference!

  • Russell Hendry says:

    Shot Tim. Great to see a humble leader with real empathy and stressing the need for unity in team and country to be successful and having respect for adversaries. One seriously important aspect of this team that is blatantly obvious, and yet all (you too) seem to ignore, is that they are mostly believers and fully accountable to a Higher Power, which is not their country or the President, but a spiritual power which some of us call, GOD. This dictates from whence their humility, respect, love and power comes from, and yet we all chose to ignore this aspect of their true values. Why?.

  • Fred S says:

    Truly the power of one in more than one way….3 final games in a row also all won by one point

  • Michael Thomlinson says:

    Siya for president!

  • Alpha Sithole says:

    I would disagree slightly and say that this was the “power of many”; there are a number of very strong leaders in the Springbok squad who supplement the role of our captain both on and off the field. Even when Siya is off the field, the team continues to operate effectively.

  • Robert Taylor says:

    Well summarised Tim. I concur 100% with your appropriate article on Leadership. For a while now I have imagined what a difference Siya Kolisi and twenty plus of his fellow Springboks COULD ACHIEVE if they formed a party to challenge for leadership of our failing country with the mantra NOT FOR YOU : FOR EVERYONE representing their driving objective in altering the trajectory of our beloved country. I have no doubt that , like me there are many like minded ex SUCCESSFUL businessmen who would put up their hands throughout the provinces to effect positive change locally using the key pillars of accountability, integrity, benevolence and expertise to galvanise ALL South Africans. These are the fundamental aspects of leadership SO LACKING in our present Government. Kolisi has the gravitas and worldly credibility to lead this team forward into a first world country devoid of greed, nepotism and lawlessness through meritorious leadership instead of “jobs for pals” because the hierarchy “want to EAT”. WE as genuine South Africans can dream or WE can ACT : same as our BOKKE. They decided collectively to ACT and the result was a historic WIN for ALL decent , law abiding South Africans. Now let us all WIN TOGETHER and get serious about saving our Country from our present INEPT leaders.

  • Colin Donian says:

    Tim is opening a big conversation in this and an earlier article about leadership: what it is, and is not – and what makes a person a leader (someone who does leadership…).
    Because these two terms / concepts are used so loosely we kinda end up with leadership being anything, and leaders being anyone. That cannot be right; it isn’t in any other professional field – accounting, law, engineering, music, rugby…
    So, without a clear definition, we think and talk past each other.
    But, let me get back to The Rugby Team! and the president.
    There are clear examples (for me) that the team captain, Siya, showed great leadership at certain leadership moments. And, the team are a powerful example of what people can achieve through certain attitudes and behaviours – they are an example of success.
    On the other hand, Mr President standing amongst the team members holding the Golden Cup… he is a perfect example of misleadership, absent leadership.
    He is the captain / CEO of South Africa and it is anything but a success, and not heading that way either.
    So, Mr Ramaphosa is the president, but he needs to exercise leadership to be a leader.
    Can he?
    Will he?
    Is he equipped to lead?
    Leadership, like all skills, must be learned and practiced, and practiced…
    One last quip – leadership, being a leader, is not others’ business, it is each person’s business.

  • Andrew Gunn says:

    Bottom line, if we, including all politicians ( unlikely I am afraid), put the country first, we would be a winning nation. Nothing to stop us doing what we can in our own sphere of influence however.

  • Mahomed Latiff says:

    Every time someone suggests he enter politics or become President, I cringe. He is better than that, much better.

    • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

      Being good at one thing, does not mean that you will be good at everything.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      Couldn’t agree more. I attended a function that Dr Imtiaz Sooliman addressed. Predictably a number of attendees suggested that he too wallow with the political pigs and I nearly cringed myself a spinal injury.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    This whole team together with a Great Captain & Coaches as well as a fantastic back room team, shows how people without egos, but with a goal and sense of purpose can achieve greatness. This opposed to how the ineffectual & corrupt ANC operate

  • Quenton Tieho Sibeko says:

    what a game and what a leader

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    “President Cyril Ramaphosa will address the nation, otherwise known as climbing on the bandwagon, on Monday.”

    He leaped onto the bandwagon with speed and gracelessness a good deal quicker than that. He had the trophy out of Kolisi’s hands within what has been reported as 8 seconds of it being placed there. The boks have achieved what they have in spite of everything that Ramaphosa and his gang of incompetent thieves have done and have omitted to do. His hand picked sports czar couldn’t even ensure that we complied with the anti-doping requirements that we committed to and thereby risked us going anthemless in the world cup. If ever there has been a more brazen attempt at stealing glory I can’t think of one.

  • Enver Klein says:

    Why, oh why, Ismail? Let us just enjoy the article about Siya, and forget the rest named in the article, I just ignored those names. Thoroughly enjoyed the read Tim.
    To quote from your article: “… Leadership, as I was trying to point out, is a varied thing, and often situational…”. There was training course back in the 80’s called “Situational Leadership”, it gave you insights into leadership from different perspectives, not only the business world.

  • Donald Knight says:

    I hope I mis-heard the President during an interview on RSG when he said he was going to the final ‘to ensure’ success.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      Sounds perfectly in character for the role of naked emperor role he plays so well. I sometimes hope he’s sincere when he spews his drivel as it seems less ominous than the alternative.

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