Let the main thing stay the main thing

By Nic Andrew

A year ago, I was fortunate to be in Japan to witness the famous Springbok triumph over old foes England in the Rugby World Cup Final.

Amidst the ensuing euphoria, no one could have imagined what the year ahead would have in store for the world. COVID 19, lockdowns and a global pandemic were unknown concepts that we would soon become all too familiar with. However, while lockdown brought many challenges to individuals, businesses and society, it also offered us all the opportunity to reflect.

One of my personal lockdown highlights (as a die-hard South African sporting fan) was the opportunity and privilege to interview Rassie Erasmus where he candidly shared many of his thoughts, stories and philosophies around the Bok journey - from dejection and under-performance to the pinnacle of international rugby.
While he came across as self-effacing and humble, what struck me was the power and broader applicability of many of his insights with respect to culture, leadership, diversity and excellence. With the release of the documentary “Chasing the Sun” hitting our screens, I thought I would share some of the valuable lessons I gained from our conversation.

Face the reality

When Rassie took over as coach, the Springboks had just been thumped by Ireland and were ranked a lowly 7th in the world ranking. Despite this, some of the players and management thought things were going ok and that the fans were being overly critical. An important first step to re-building was to address this gap in self-awareness and, as a collective, acknowledge the reality of how poorly the team was performing. Only once they accepted the hard facts, would they be able to begin the process of moving forward.

Let the main thing stay the main thing

The coach came up with this simple mantra to remind everyone that their primary role was to play good rugby and win matches. It was a highly effective mantra to cut through all the noise and help the team stay focussed on the job at hand. Only after they had successfully achieved the primary objective of playing good rugby and winning matches, could they start to think about inspiring and uniting the nation or becoming brand ambassadors and building a social profile. 

Ownership vs entitlement

Rassie spoke about his own journey as a “disruptive” player in the team environment. He described the behaviour-journey as one he had seen repeated regularly over his career, where a young player would sacrifice everything in the desperation to wear the green and gold jersey. Once selected the player would continue to sacrifice for the good of the team as they felt honoured to be a part of it. Then, as he become more experienced and achieved greater recognition this honour would evolve into satisfaction. This natural journey is healthy to a point – but becomes a danger if the player’s sense of honour or satisfaction evolved into entitlement. At the point of becoming or feeling ‘entitled’, many brilliant individuals became extremely destructive to the team goal as they no longer felt the commitment to sacrifice for the greater good.

Rassie’s desire was to create a culture where players of all levels took ownership of their role - where they continued to sacrifice and play for the common purpose regardless of their personal stature. Those who believed they were entitled were excluded irrespective of their brilliance. This ensured a common goal and cohesion and that everyone was held accountable.

Building trust and honest feedback

Trust in any organisation or team is critical to achieving excellence. Rassie generated this by being extremely open and transparent with all players with regards to their performance and team selection. There were no 1-on-1’s held behind closed doors which prevented anyone second-guessing what was being said. He also acknowledged that being open and providing frank feedback is easy in principle but often more difficult in high-pressure situations, but that it remained paramount.

Tradition vs habit

In a country often divided by the past, Rassie shared some fascinating discussions around Springbok “traditions” such as the handing out of jerseys by wealthy businessmen or politicians or the playing of certain songs on the team bus. These ‘traditions’ were closely examined and questioned by the team. Some practices that had been considered traditions emerged instead as habits that did not serve the greater purpose of the team. These habits were subsequently scrapped in order to keep the focus on what mattered the most – playing good rugby and winning games.
The Springbok victory a year ago might seem a distant memory now, but the lessons learnt on the journey to winning the World Cup remain relevant.

I constantly remind myself and the Nedgroup Investments team to ensure that, despite all the noise and the chaos, “The main thing stays the main thing”. Our main thing is to relentlessly focus on helping our clients achieve their investment goals by delivering good long-term performance – and we remain as committed to this as ever.