As I was preparing to work for my first startup, a mentor recommended I read a leadership book by James Kerr called Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life. Kerr created a leadership handbook by diving deep into the world of the most successful sports team of all, the New Zealand All Blacks.
I’ve been a huge sports fan my whole life. Specifically, I’m interested in the psychology of team sports and the cultural buy-in it takes to perform at a high level over an extended period of time. If you grew up playing sports, chances are you landed on a team comprised of individually talented athletes. The team may have had a good year or two due to enough individual efforts by these naturally gifted athletes. There is also a good chance, you played against a team that had been high performing for years and was a perennial powerhouse. I have been blessed to be part of dismally performing teams, naturally gifted teams and played a part in high performing teams in both sport and business. Culture is king.
The New Zealand national team is the best rugby team to ever suit up with an all-time winning percentage north of 75%. They aren’t just maintaining a high winning percentage in their division. They consistently beat any and all international challengers. Why? They maintain the highest level of execution and ultimately winning by instilling key principles and putting them into practice every day. In Kerr’s book, he touches on 15 leadership lessons that can be implemented by leaders on all levels of your business, in virtually any field tasked with developing high performing teams.
The book was impactful and the lessons relatable from authenticity to adaptability and sacrifice to “leaving the jersey in a better place” by incrementally improving toward a collective result. The principle that spoke to me the most as I began the startup journey, was Keep a Blue Head. The All Blacks preach keeping a blue head by controlling your attention to avoid poor decision making in high-pressure situations. The All Blacks define a “red head” state as being tight, anxious, panicked and desperate. When one is in a “blue state”, they are calm, in the moment, focused, accurate and loose. The All Blacks focus intently on remaining in the blue. When you are in the blue, you are in control and able to navigate pressure-filled situations.
The All Blacks use mantras, memory aids and physical actions in high-pressure situations to get back to clear thought mental control. An All Black great, Richie McCaw described focusing on breathing and repeatedly shifting his attention until he got back in the moment. He recalls physically stomping his feet down to literally ground himself as a trigger to work back toward the blue.
For me, working to help build a startup while loving and serving our clients has been filled with varying states of pressure and has put my in-the-moment awareness to the test. The practice of reminding myself to stay close to the blue in order to make sound decisions for my internal and external stakeholders has been invaluable in these early days at Valve and Meter. When I start to feel the red creep in, I remind myself to breathe and take a mental step back to stay focused on the big picture and not be consumed by panic and fear. Pressure comes with the territory of taking risks and it is the ability to remain sound and stoic in the face of tension and stress that separates good leaders from the great and good businesses from transformational.