'how does it feel to beat the best in the world?'

06.12.16

"Incredible! McGeechan laughs, thinking back to 1974.

"Because of the respect there is there for rugby, winning in New Zealand is such a satisfying achievement."

"We're in New Zealand,' he says, by way of explanation, "and this middle-aged lady with two shopping bags starts talking to us.  "You know', she said, 'Your back row was excellent. You're a bit in front for the first breakdown. Floating the ball to the back of the line means they'd have to stay in formation, so you open up your midfield. You put pressure on front while their back row had to stay down..."

"She went through the whole game. And we just looked at each other..."

The level of rugby knowledge in NZ is remarkable, the national team formidable, the challenge daunting.

"You have to have it right," says McGeechan.

Last year the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup for the third time, and they lost legends like McCaw and Carter. Yet this year they sometimes have seemed to have taken the game to a new level, a dazzling playbook centered about the pace and vision of the new star of world rugby, Beauden Barrett.

Lions heart's beat faster

The 2016 season brought the All Blacks a world record streak, the Rugby Championship, the Bledisloe Cup, and ultimately, 13 victories out of 14 matches. The 14th was the Irish.

And on this, Lions heart's beat faster.

"I think Ireland's performances both in Chicago and Dublin were outstanding' says McGeechan. "My concern was whether they would be able to back it up in Dublin and I was very impressed with the way they did."

The secret to beating the Kiwis, he thinks, lies in the tall timber, the big men in the middle of the scrum.

"The second row now has become the transitional play between some of the tight stuff and the phase play. I think Ireland, England, and Scotland are playing well because they have very high energy, high net worth rugby players in the second row; a potentially very strong back five to play off, with some very talented backs.'

"This is where I think Warren Gatland's in a strong position. I'm not sure which second rows he'll leave out, because I think he's got some genuine, top-quality rugby players to choose from. I think what always amazes me is the different chemistry that comes out from players who've never played together before."

Challenge of coaching

"The challenge of coaching', Geech continues, ' - and Gats and I have talked about it in the past -- is keeping an open mind with the players.   You cannot pick a test team on week one. You have to be interchanging your selections so that every player is involved at least three times in the games leading up to the first test.'

"He can put down his own game out there and actually show what he's capable of in the Lions jersey ..."

Being part of this tradition is something special in an increasingly professionalised world.

"The Lions are such a unique environment', says McGeechan. "You have the most talented players in Britain and Ireland, and you have to give them the opportunity to show what they can do in a Lions jersey because the reaction to wearing it, the reaction to being on tour, is very different.

"Lions rugby doesn't reflect any of the four countries. It is actually unique to that group of players, and often the Lions play a rugby and a brand that is different. Because it's every four years, there's a uniqueness about what the jersey is and what that particular group give to it."

These names reverberate throughout history; Martin Johnson, Brian O'Driscoll, Willie John McBride, Barry John   .... these are legends forged in the red heat of the Lions.

"To see how the young players still look at a Lions jersey as being the ultimate one to wear, is I think an incredible development in a professional rugby age when the Lions almost don't have room.'

The transformational leader

For McGeechan the coach, the leader, it all comes down to bringing the best out of his players by creating a culture of collective responsibility, of mutual ownership, connection and contribution and communication.

This is an area business can learn a lot from sport. In response to the zeitgeist, and a better psychological appreciation of how to unite and inspire people, a new type of leader is emerging as the most effective in bringing the best out of their team; the transformational leader.

This represents a shift away from the transactional, command-and control approach towards a kind of 'Coach CEO' typified by their ability to inspire their people through connection to a common - or uncommon - cause.  And then to build and motivate a team to execute that vision.

In the modern work environment - where teams often form and reform, and employees feel even more free to trade up or sideways in their careers, the leaders who prevail are those who exhibit the kind of traits manifested by Sir Ian; a deep knowledge of his field, a humble humanity, a spirit of contribution to the greater good, an appreciation of the importance of people, people, people .. and therefore a focus on empowerment and on bringing out the best in their people.

Simply put, it's about being inclusive, listening to everyone, and making everyone feel part of the team and having ownership. You don't need to have a star fund manager mentality to be a star fund manager!

In the end, as Sir Ian puts it, it’s all about 'a team of teams'. "As you know,' he says, 'it's when you get different groups talking to one another they'd come up with answers, and a sense of collective responsibility. And this collective intelligence that you've got has been drawn out and shared, so your leadership on the field starts to evolve in the different areas, simply because of the way different players are talking to one another."

Straight talk - honest, constructive conversation conducted between consenting adults - is central this kind of cohesion. "Having that ability to share ideas, disagree, be challenged, whatever it is, is just taking it on board so ultimately you get the right decision.'

It's about creating ownership at every level.

"When you're doing something, if everybody understands it, then everybody has the answer and everybody is available to solve the problem as well."

Lessons from the Lions

Though coming from almost diametrically opposite corners of the world, the All Blacks and the Lions have much in common. They are both great, proud traditions, representing the best of their nations, providing a pinnacle, a proving ground of excellence in rugby union. They both understand that it is about the players - their people - and creating an environment in which they can shine. And they both transmit values and standards that transcend their game and uphold a proud legacy.

These 'Lessons from the Lions' reflect the principles that are common to all high performing environments, which are that they are:

The Lions also remind us of what it means to play for pride and for the right reasons; for the love of the game, the love of the team, the love of the badge - the oldest and best motive in sport. And in business.

After all, says McGeechan, "The jersey has a number on it, and a year, and that represents what you stood for."

Leaders in every sphere might learn a lesson or two from this mindset; about personal responsibility, connection and cohesion, passion and pride, about setting the highest standards and doing it right, about humility and hard work, respect and friendship, and purpose. In the Lions, as in business leadership, it's what you stand for that matters - your fundamental values and the legacy you leave behind.

"What you want,' says McGeechan, 'is that the supporters coming to New Zealand want to wear a Lions jersey because of what they've seen happen in it, and the role models and the actions and the behaviours around the jersey, off the field as well as on.'

He's speaking of sport -  but substitute your company's name here and think about the kind of impact you want the business to make.

Never on your own

"There was an elderly lady', Geech says. 'She was probably well into her seventies and was saving up with her husband to go on tour to South Africa. He died three months before the tour and she was persuaded by her family to go out to South Africa.  At the end of it she just said, "I want to say thank you."

I looked at her, I couldn't understand why.  She explained. She said, "You know, when I got on tour," she said, "I was there for nearly three weeks." She said, "There wasn't one minute on that tour when I was ever on my own." She said, "I had the Lions jersey on, and the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English, whatever."

"I'm sorry my husband wasn't there but," she said, "I was so well looked after and felt part of something that was just very, very special.

She said, "I wouldn't have missed it for the world." And she said "God willing, come 2013," she said, "I'll be in Australia as well."

And maybe she'll be there in New Zealand, in spirit anyway, watching the Lions take on its latest, possibly greatest challenge.

"I think New Zealand are probably two years ahead of any other team in terms of what they're doing and how they're doing it. But I think the Lions potentially have a game in there.  That makes it a very exciting prospect, I think, for a very exciting test series."

On June 24th, the 2017 Lions face their first All Blacks haka.

"I always saw it as a privilege' says McGeechan. "It's a challenge and it means you're worthy of the challenge. That's how I said it to the players; you are worthy of being in that arena, with that group of people, at that time. "

These are two great legacies converging - that of the All Blacks, 113 years of extraordinary, sustained success, an immovable object; and that of the Lions, 125 years of pride, and passion, an unstoppable force.

Watch, and learn.