Gees/Ubuntu… what I learned about leadership from the Springboks

I am a proud Panamanian who was blessed with the opportunity to live in South Africa for almost 4 years as an expat and can say that understanding their national identity was confusing in the beginning, interesting during the process and fulfilling when I felt like a South African. Nothing that you learn about South Africa and Mr. Mandela from overseas can prepare you for this magnificent experience. I have never seen any group of people with so many differences coming together for one common goal: The Rugby World Cup. After experiencing the Springboks (this is what they call the South African rugby national team) winning the 2019 World Cup, every little piece of knowledge about the country’s identity came together and taught me a great lesson about leadership.

 Individual differences = unique team 

Having a common goal does not mean that all the team members must pursue this goal in the same way and follow one standard behavior/identity. Rassie Erasmus was appointed as Head Coach of the Springboks after they hit rock bottom with disappointing losses against teams like Argentina and Italy. There was no trust from the Springboks fans and the team morale was at its lowest. There were many opinions about what should be done, but no plan. With 18 months to go until the start of the world cup, there was a need for change. The biggest and yet the most logical change was to embrace individual differences and assemble a solid team that represented the true South African identity. We cannot shy away from the fact that South Africa is a country which has 11 official languages and the only country in the world that has a national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ Afrika, where the 5 most spoken languages are represented (Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English). These differences that were used during Apartheid to keep the non-white population divided, were the same differences that the post-Apartheid government used to unite this country. Many players from different ethnic groups were called and given a fair chance with the sole purpose of choosing the best players for this mission regardless of their skin colour.

The right role model to “walk the talk” 

Siya Kolisi, a talented Xhosa player, was appointed captain. The first time ever a black man would be captain of the Springboks. This sent a clear message that for this team, traditionally formed in their majority by white players, it was time to embrace our differences and be stronger together. Siya grew up in a Township in Zwide, Eastern Cape and faced many challenges growing up in poverty. Because of his hard work and determination, he was granted a rugby scholarship. During his school years at Grey High School, he had to work hard to learn English and integrate with his teammates. Coach Rassie Erasmus knew Siya from his school days and witnessed his growth in this sport. During the world cup final, the springbok line was the true definition of hard work and Siya was there at the front line leading the springbok’s wall.

A strong Unit

I like to call a team that work together a “unit”. It is a term that I stole with pride from my studies in military leadership. Anyone can assemble a team but not anyone can make the team work as a unit. In a unit there are no specialists or stars, there is one body who performs as one. During the 18 months of preparation for the world cup, Rassie Erasmus used a wide variety of squads and by the time the final team/unit was assembled, there was very little difference between the starting line up and the bench. The springbok subs look sometimes stronger than the starting team. The reason why this happened is that everyone felt part of the team regardless of their role. When they were on the field everyone helped, the smaller players tackled as strong as the big players and the big players ran as fast as the smaller ones. On the field everyone worked as a unit and when the ball was dropped, everyone worked their hardest to recover it.

Every inch count

Nothing amazed me more than the level of excellence that was demanded by the springbok fans in every single play. It is like that father who gets so mad at his “straight A” son when he comes home with a B. Anything less than excellent was a failure. And this attitude was replicated on the field where the South Africans fight like mad dogs for every inch of the field. There was a moment in the game that they kept the English team within inches from the goal line for more than 5 minutes and prevented them from scoring a try. This was the turning point of the game when the English team realized that they were facing a team that not only was fighting to win, they were fighting for every inch. To me, that moment defined that the springboks were not playing to win, they were playing to claim what belonged to them.

That sense of pride often referred to as Gees or Ubuntu in South Africa is what I witnessed from every person I saw that day, especially from my wife Emma, when the Springboks raised the Webb Ellis trophy as a winner of the 2019 Rugby World cup. I will take that experience in my heart as part of my time in South Africa. Cheers and God speed to all!

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