7 front row leadership lessons from All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick

The former New Zealand captain on why winning matters, and how to keep winning in business

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Sean Fitzpatrick was a little fat kid growing up in Auckland (his words). Yet between 1986 and 1997 he led the greatest and most successful sporting team in the world – the All Blacks.

The former New Zealand All Blacks legend played in 92 internationals, 51 of those as skipper, while playing in three World Cups – the first of which the All Blacks won. In that 1987 tournament, the side put 190 points on the board in their three group games alone, before comfortably overcoming a strong French side in the final.

Winning’s been a constant theme throughout the illustrious All Black history. From Fitzpatrick’s All Black father Brian all the way through to the modern era of Jonah Lomu, Richie McCaw, and 100-cap Dan Carter – the highest points scorer in Test Match rugby – the All Blacks have produced winning team after winning team. The 2013 incarnation remain unbeaten in the calendar year.

For a country with a population of less than 4.5 million, New Zealand’s dominance appears an anomaly – but is explained largely by the nation’s absolute devotion to the sport in either code, to the extent that losing affects the economy. To explain the level of expectation, Fitzpatrick points to the win ratios for the best sporting sides in history. The Brazilian football team have won 73% of the time. England’s rugby team have been victors in 50% of their games. The All Blacks? 86%!

Fitzpatrick himself has lived in London for the past 10 years, forging a successful business career and writing Winning Matters: Being the best you can be. As director of Front Row Group of Companies and Front Row Leadership, the 50-year-old took to the stage in Liverpool at the Accelerate conference to deliver an absolute masterclass in how to win – and a Haka for 200 people in suits!

Here are the highlights:

1. Remember your losses more than your wins

“I grew up in Auckland. My father was an All Black in the 1950s. He was involved in the last team to lose to the Welsh in 1953. When he was invited to a reunion of Welsh ‘53 team by Cliff Morgan, he slammed the phone down. Dad would not go back to Wales when we toured.

“My most memorable game was in 1993 against the Lions. We lost. I personally had a terrible game. The team played badly. I said to the team – make a mental note of way you feel now and make sure you never feel that way again. Celebrate success, but park it quickly.

“Remember your losses more than your wins. In business, remember the accounts you lost, the customers you lost. Losing that game in 1993 changed my life.

2. Re-focus on what you do best

“The All Black team I took over in 1991 was in disarray. It took four years before we believed could be a world class team. You get too scared to try anything for fear of failure.

We said play as you do for provinces and clubs. The 1996-97 team was full of high achieving young men. Writing my book made me look back at the turning points. Long roads turned out to be right roads.

3. Wanting to win is ok – winning matters

“Saying, I want you to win is ok. Winning matters. Winning is good. It’s the only option. It’s fun. Why don’t we say ‘participate, but bloody win’? With employees get the people that want to win.

“There are five key messages all successful teams have to have:

  1. Enjoy it
  2. Everyone is equal
  3. Have an attitude
  4. Be as successful as you can be individually
  5. And win”

4. Do it for your shareholders

“There are 4.5 million people in New Zealand. They all feel they are shareholders in our organisation. You make a mental note of the feeling of pulling on a jersey.

“The biggest fear was that we were going to lose. Harness the fear of failure. It’s the same in business. Train as hard as you can. Teams that prepare well are teams that win. If our cricket, football team or yachters come second, we say ‘well done’. If the All Blacks come second it’s a national disaster and affects the economy.

“The legend of the jersey is more intimidating than anything. Legacy is paramount. You only have the jersey for the time that you play in it and then pass it on to the next generation.”

5. Create a culture – and honour it

“The All Blacks is an organisation that’s 120 years’ old. There are 25 living All Black captains. We meet once a year and talk about the culture of the organisation. The vision was to be best in world and to win every game we played.”

“I couldn’t wait to do the Haka. New Zealand only did the Haka on tour. I played my first three games in New Zealand. I was inducted into the culture of All Blacks. I was told in no uncertain terms what it was to be an All Black.”

6. Be prepared to make sacrifices

“Warren Gatland was sitting on the bench for 63 internationals. In 57 he never got on. But I thought he was a better player than me. We were hugely open with each other, challenging each other. This is the most important thing in your life – if not, go and get another job.

“If you want to be world class your work has to be number one. I would be away 180 days in a year. I missed my kids’ first day of school, prize giving, the birth of my second daughter.”

7. Don’t get complacent

“We’d sit in groups and ask ourselves to name ‘the two things you’re good at and the one thing you’re not’. It builds a huge amount of trust. You can do that in your teams.

“In ‘91 we went to the World Cup and the wheels had fallen off. We were a bunch of arrogant sods and lost to a better team – not necessarily better players, but the better team. Remember, the legacy is more intimidating than any individual.

Sean Fitzpatrick was speaking at the Accelerate conference in Liverpool, host city for the International Festival of Business in 2014.

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