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A winning template — the government would do well to take a leaf from the Springboks’ playbook

A winning template — the government would do well to take a leaf from the Springboks’ playbook
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Springbok captain Siya Kolisi laugh at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. 2 November 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images/Frennie Shivambu)

The Springboks’ back-to-back Rugby World Cup victories show what can be possible at the country level: a team united behind a common South Africanness, purpose and vision.

As South Africa experiences a deluge of economic, social and political crises — with largely incompetent, clueless, corrupt, dishonest and deliberately divisive leadership at the helm of government — the Springbok rugby team is a welcome beacon of success, inspiration, unity, common purpose and decisive leadership. A globally admired team, behaving with dignity and delivering champion performances based on unity that’s forged around diversity, talent and new ideas.

The team showed extraordinary grit and mental strength to come back time after time from seeming defeats to win by the narrowest of margins. Their World Cup victory, done with such single-mindedness, team spirit and self-belief, gave many South Africans happiness and joy amid the power outages, state failure, corruption and economic woes caused by spectacularly incompetent, corrupt and uncaring public and elected leaders.

South Africans could also identify with the extraordinary individual life journeys of many of the players, often from abject poverty, setbacks and failures to triumph, through a combination of raw talent, hard work and sheer grit.

The Springboks showed what is possible when dealing with some of the perceived divisive issues that the government, business and society struggle with daily. They showed that redress and merit are not mutually exclusive, nor should there be a trade-off for one or the other, but that redress should be in the context of merit.

The coaches chose the team on individual merit, fitness and performance — not based on the past, colour or connections — while balancing this with redress. Rugby has built grassroots development structures, at school, club and provincial levels, where talent from disadvantaged communities is nurtured and developed to feed into the national team set-up if players are good enough.

Of course, the system is not perfect, and many talented players from previously disadvantaged communities fell between the cracks because of poorly developed sports infrastructure in their townships, individual poverty and inadequate support from the community.

Lessons for the government

What are the lessons for the South African government from the management of the Springbok rugby team?

South Africa is a very diverse society and leveraging its diversity in government, business and sport is critical.

Many political leaders and ordinary South Africans appear to misguidedly think that the country’s diversity is an obstacle to economic growth, development and peace. The strength of the Springbok team is its diversity — which nurtures innovation, new ideas and new behaviour.

Without hard work, there is no prospect of success. Individual players have worked hard, and continue to do so to stay at the top of their game. There is no shortcut that bypasses the hard work.

Quality, inclusive and caring leadership were key to the stellar performance of the team. It is clear that the Springboks’ leaders accept vulnerability as strength.

Janice Omadeke, the CEO of the Mentor Method, says: “Vulnerability in leadership means being open and honest about one’s strengths and weaknesses, admitting mistakes and seeking feedback and support from others.” To lead from vulnerability, leaders must be self-aware.

The leaders of the Springboks led through honesty. Honesty is being transparent, listening to others and delivering on promises. Honest leaders promote trust in themselves and among the team. If leaders behave honestly, team members will be honest and more open to collaborating to achieve team goals. Honesty from leaders is at the heart of accountability — as honest leaders hold themselves accountable for their decisions, actions and behaviour.

The Springboks were clearly led by humble, visionary, quality leaders. This is in contrast to the arrogant, self-important and opportunistic — yet clueless — political leaders running South Africa.

Evidence-based decisions were key to the success of the team. If wrong decisions were taken, they were reversed in real time. The flyhalf Manie Libbok was taken off very early in the semifinal against England when he performed poorly. Consequence management was key to the game plan: you were off the team if you did not perform. Consequence management ensures accountability.

Leaders must be knowledgeable. There is no place for deploying cadres with no knowledge of the areas in which they operate. The rugby team based their decisions on top-class analysis, cutting-edge knowledge and evidence.

They played to their strengths. They often built their play around the forwards, including the now famous “Bomb Squad” of forwards coming out as replacements. Rather than building on SA’s economic, political and societal strengths, the government has frequently tried to break or ignore these for fantasy, wishful thinking and irrational and dead-end projects.

The rugby team could not have performed in the way they did without a competent administrative national body. Rugby is clearly better run than South African soccer, with its shambolic administration. The Springboks had an ecosystem of strong institutions and associations anchoring the team. They also had support staff with diverse specialities — from psychologists to nutritionists.

A long-term strategy

The team management embraced innovation, new ideas and imagination. Many of the new approaches, ideas and innovations employed by the team management baffled, bemused and outraged competing teams — yet they proved revolutionary.

The team had a long-term strategy, with timelines, milestones and assessments: to win the World Cup. The strategy had to be realistic, relevant and rational. It was pragmatic. The strategy was not based on rhetoric, slogans or ideology. Neither was it irrational, unlike many of the government’s policies, plans and strategies.

They committed to the strategy and had the discipline to execute the plan and assign responsibility and accountability throughout its life cycle. The plan was monitored from game to game, with measurable goals. Resources, operational teams and leadership were aligned to the plan. There was tight monitoring and evaluation of the strategy. Changes were made when things appeared to not be working. 

The coaches, Rassie Erasmus and Jaques Nienaber, created an organisational culture which is conducive to high performance. By setting the example of leading with respect, trust and clear direction, they enabled a high-performance organisational culture. Research shows the importance of a conducive organisational culture to performance.

The lessons from the Springboks are clear: to increase the government’s performance, we cannot use outdated, irrational, ideological and wishful thinking policies, nor can we use old economic ideas in the new technology age. Neither can we deploy incompetent, ignorant and dishonest leaders and managers in the public sector and in politics and expect effective execution, excellence and a winning nation.

Next year’s national elections provide ordinary South Africans with the opportunity to elect new leaders who are humble, competent and caring, who bring new ideas, new energy and imagination to transform the country into a winning one, to inspire global and local confidence, admiration and excitement. DM

This is an extract from Prof William Gumede’s closing remarks at the annual Drakensberg Inclusive Growth Forum under the auspices of the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation Drakensberg at the Champagne Sports Resort, Drakensberg.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Colin Barclay says:

    This is an accurate assessment of both the shambolic political situation as well as the value of having a clear plan, consequence management, transparent leadership and having your teams’ back whatever the context. Sadly, will the political ‘leaders’ ever realise what they have to do to reach the heights they claim we are capable of as a country. Doubtful. Thanks for the great analysis Prof.

  • Timothy Fearnhead says:

    Could not agree more with William Gumede. I was disgusted to see Ramaphosa grab the cup as if he and his government had helped to win it.
    If we had Rassnaber running the country they would have never let Squirrel onto the field.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    There are no short cuts in life. Professor Gumede knows this as much as anybody – a great speech.
    Sadly the ANC has no servant leadership culture or long term vision for SA and the poor suffer the consequences.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Inspiring, principled, disciplined, inclusive, transparent leadership. Nothing like any SA politician or bureaucrat to date. ANC please get out of the way of people’s ambitions for their lives.

  • Derek Jones says:

    What a wonderful speech. Thank you Prof William Gumede. Sadly our president has already shown a complete lack of integrity. That, for a leader or a sportsman is fatal.

  • Dermot Molloy says:

    Wow..what an impressive, honest & uplifting speech! This should be shared & circulated far & wide. Thank you.

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