listening to radio rhema this morning my ears were caught by an illustration about leadership and politics that using graham henry, coach of the All Blacks team as an example.  the radio host cited an article written by david kirk, captain of the 1987 all blacks.  so of course, i looked it up and am filing it here… as i may pinch it and use it myself one day…




I moved to Auckland from Otago in 1985. My first coach at the Auckland University Rugby Club was Graham Henry.

Ted, as he was then, and is now to all his players, was a well-established and successful club coach. A month or two into the season I had a problem. I needed to travel out of Auckland at the weekend to resolve some personal (ie girlfriend) issues.

I broke the news to Ted at training that I would not be available for selection that weekend. His response to me was blunt: "Well you’re no bloody good to me then, are you? Bugger off and muck around over there."

I didn’t really mind, I was getting my weekend off after all, but I did think the response was a bit uncaring.

That was Ted then and so it remained for many years after. Through most of his coaching career he has been driven, blunt, not quite surly, but not far off. He is now nothing like that and, at least in part, a great All Black team is his and our reward.

Ted tells the story against himself that earlier in his All Black coaching career he gave one of his typically detailed and definitive team talks before a match. He made it clear to players what was expected of them, what was required and what they would be judged on. 

After the team talk, it is not clear exactly when, but let us assume not on the way to the bus and the ground, but at some later time, his captain, Tana Umaga, came up to Ted and asked him a question. He said,

"Why do you give all those team talks?"

Ted replied something to the effect,

"To prepare the team. To make sure everyone is focused on what we have to do."

Tana burst his bubble with his reply, "No one listens to them you know. They are a waste of time. I reckon you should just stop."  

Ted doesn’t say if he did stop completely but I am sure he took the advice on board and adjusted his style and approach. It is fashionable to say that Generation Y or Generation Z, or whatever letter-label we use today, are different, that they can’t be treated the same as earlier generations, that motivating them is more difficult.

Of course this is true, every generation is different from the last, but in truth All Blacks as people with a mission are not that different from decade to decade. They all have the same job to do, they all have the same tools with which to do it, they all have the same legacy to uphold and the same fear of failure and the same need to be remembered as a great All Black.

It is not the essential nature of the players that has changed, but the essential nature of Ted.

I edited the World magazine’s recent rugby edition and ran a feature on the showdown between Robbie Deans and Graham Henry.

Sybille Hetet, the wonderful photo editor at Fairfax magazines, dug out a whole lot of photos of the two coaches. As we were poring through them, selecting the ones we would use in the magazine, Sybille said to me:  "You know what I really notice in these photos of Graham Henry? How close he is to his players. Here’s one with a player with his arm around him, here’s another in which he is ruffling a player’s hair and another where the players are picking him up."

It was true. Through the photos it was obvious that the players had great affection for their coach and he for them. This was something much more than the stand-offish respect and good-natured camaraderie of team and coach, this was a deeper connection.

Graham Henry, and it has to be said his assistant coaches, have built a truly great All Black team and they have developed courageous, thoughtful and caring men. This could not have been done by the Ted I knew in 1985. But it has been done by the Ted of the last few years and of 2011.

I salute Ted, the man who has prepared his team to be the best in the world and set them free to do it. I bet that somewhere in the motivation of every All Black that runs out tonight will be a part reserved for their coach.

This team wants to win the World Cup for themselves and for the country, but they also desperately want to do it for Ted. And that is a testament to the man, not the coach, and the greatest gift his players can give him.

David Kirk – read from here heard this morning as a leadership illustration in a discussion on leadership and politics on radio rhema