#181: Leadership Lessons (from Rassie Erasmus)

“If you want to achieve something you’ve never achieved before, you have to do something you’ve never done before” – Rassie Erasmus

Dear friends

This Simons Town week has been somewhat surreal. The bay has been still, so still that on Thursday night, the waves that pulse against the rocks beneath our home were silent.

On Monday afternoon, I declared an early end to my day to sneak in an hour’s swim or, more accurately, float. As I lazed in the water, a cormorant landed a few metres away. I watched in astonishment as it slid under the surface to start its dinner hunt, a feathered spear torpedoing back and forth in the liquid blue-green of the bay. As the spectacle unfolded, an African penguin waddled onto a boulder and gave its characteristic bray – these little guys are the height of two rulers put end to end but have a honk that would cause the most stubborn mule to pause. Drama and comedy all in a few heartbeats. I’ve had many wonderful African moments, but never one like that.

On Tuesday morning, a failed external keyboard led to me to laptop work on the patio and as I did so, the resonant sound of a whale’s exhale pulled my eyes to the ocean. There was a Southern Right lazing its way along the coastline, its giant form clearly visible. On Friday, we were blessed by a trinity of these great beings. It’s been a week.

It feels strange writing this week’s letter. I am drawing on Springbok Director of Rugby, Rassie’s Erasmus’ Stories of Life and Rugby. It is Friday as I write and I don’t know whether South Africa or New Zealand will make rugby history by winning the Rugby World Cup for a fourth time. I wondered whether I shouldn’t postpone this letter for a few weeks. If South Africa lost last night, you may not be interested in Rassie’s reflections.

That said, Erasmus himself provided me with the final answer. 

Towards the end of his book, he reflects “For me, the massive achievement has been the Elite Player Development (EPD) Pathway. I did it not because I thought one day, I’m going to coach the Springboks. I did it because I could do something to give people an equal chance. Wouldn’t South Africa be a better place if everyone were given an equal chance?”

The EPD Pathway develops talented young players and has been instrumental in the transformation of South African rugby. Amongst its many successes are Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am who were critical in South Africa’s 2019 Rugby World Cup win.

Erasmus goes on to say “I take great pride in watching how rugby has changed from being supported by a minority of people in South Africa to a sport embraced by all its people. Rugby has shown how South Africans, no matter what race we are, what language we speak, or what background we come from, can all work together. We can beat countries more powerful and richer than ours if we stand together and use all our resources.”

So, whether South Africa won or lost last night, it doesn’t really matter because the true victory has already been banked. The leadership of captain Siya Kolisi, together with Erasmus, has provided the world a story of inspiration and transformation.

And with that, I think that we can declare that the ‘soul’ part of this week’s letter has been written. Given that the inversion is already underway, let’s turn our attention to the ‘self’ lessons that Erasmus gifts us.


Erasmus’s father was an alcoholic. Each night, after work, he would open a bottle of cane and drink until it was finished, or he passed out. At a point, the family would bundle him into his bedroom, but even there Erasmus tells us that his father was not completely safe. Once in the room, he would start to slap his legs, hard and repeatedly. Erasmus describes trying to hold his father, wrapping his dad’s legs with towels so that he didn’t hurt himself too badly and says, “all I wanted to do was comfort him because I could see he was in anguish”.

His father would come to watch Erasmus’s games but would leave after the opening minutes in search of a drink. He writes “My father never physically hurt me, but he would say things to hurt me”.

Erasmus reflects that his father quit drinking in the last months of his life and that perhaps if something had been done sooner, he might still be alive.

Much is made of Erasmus’ seeming predilection for controversy and confrontation. As he looks back on his early years he says “What this taught me is never to keep quiet when something is wrong. I couldn’t live with myself knowing something is wrong and not acting on it. If I’m convinced something is not okay, I can’t keep my mouth shut. It’s not because I’m brave; it’s because I know what the repercussions are of just keeping quiet. Maybe that’s why I take on the referees”.

It is a wise observation, one echoed by author and businessman Jerry Colonna’s therapist, Dr Sayres, who once told him “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical”.

When we have outsize reactions to something, chances are it has touched pain in our past.

Today, Erasmus is rightly lauded for his many achievements and yet, there have been missteps on his path.

He tells us “In 1994, at the age of 21, I made my debut for Free State in a midweek game against Border. My mother and my sister Gerda drove from Despatch to watch me play. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons because I was sent off for head-butting an opposition player”.

Five years later he captained the Springbok rugby team against Australia, the only time he did so. He led them to a 6-32 loss, at the time the second-biggest defeat in Springbok history and worst-ever against Australia.

They’re powerful reminders that we always have a chance to redirect our journey (Dave Dahl, whose story includes 15 years in prison and building a $275 million business, gives similar inspiration).

Even whilst a player, Erasmus was intrigued by analysis and strategy. He was an early convert to technology, enjoining South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to help him import a high-powered computer to analyse his games. It is a skill that has made his name as a coach and echoes one of the ten lessons that famed strategist, Jim Collins took from Peter Drucker’s work – Do What You’re Made For.

It is a reminder to each of us. You are unique. When you identify and compound your unique capabilities, you create your space in this world.

/// strategy

Although Erasmus’s book is not explicitly written about leadership or strategy, it is packed with powerful examples.

He reflects that when he took on the role of Springbok coach, he first gathered players for alignment camps rather than training camps.

He describes them as “two days of talking about various issues, with them listening to us and us listening to them. We didn’t even go onto the field; we were aligning” and observes “That was so important because if you don’t talk with the players regularly, there’s a lack of communication and they don’t have a chance to discuss issues that are bothering them. They start imagining things, and soon the devil is in their head…Alignment means getting everyone on the same page”.

We often forget this in our business lives. We are so often focused on the ‘to do’ list that we forget how important alignment and connection are.

Renowned tech leader, Bill Campbell, took it so seriously that he ensured that every Google Exco meeting started with informal banter about the week before. He did this week in and week out for years, knowing that that alignment and relationship are the basis of trust and trust is the foundation of performance.

Erasmus took on coaching the Springboks in the lead-up to the 2019 RWC. During that period the team recorded a few losses, but he reflects “I was measuring the improvement of our game plan not by using the scoreboard, which would have sidetracked me. It was too easy to look at the scoreboard and be disappointed, but I could see the growth in decision-making, in taking ownership, and in the way we were mauling and contesting the breakdowns and sticking to our guns tactically. Everything was getting better”.

It’s an important reminder. The most effective leaders understand that the score (revenue) is the outcome of effective strategy implementation. Those who chase the score sink businesses.

Erasmus differentiates between leadership and ownership – “You actually don’t need a lot of leaders, in my opinion. You need players who take ownership, who challenge themselves to be the most professional player, and to be the best Springbok in their position”.

We often say we want people to lead when what I think we mean is we want them to take ownership. Ownership is a journey of personal mastery, of pride and Erasmus is a master at evoking it.

This team is rightly celebrated for how it reflects the noblest of South Africa’s hopes and dreams.

He says, “If you get him to understand why the match is so important for him as a person, something switches in his mind and motivates him” and “I remind the players about this constantly. They’re playing for the people from their hometown or village, for their family, for the people they care about”.

How does what you do align with your purpose? When last did you help those you lead to understand the connection between their work, their lives, and the world they want? When last did you help those around you see the pride and purpose in their work? Where is the purpose in what you do? Find it and you’ll be happier and more effective.

Best wishes


PS: Here are a few more letters about sports leadership.

Strategy, Soul and Self

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