Rugby lost one of its most iconic sons recently. All Black star Jonah Lomu finished with 63 caps and scored 37 international tries during his career but his legacy goes beyond his numbers.
This was a man who transcended the sport to become its biggest star in the newly professionalised game yet remained quietly content blending into the background after his retirement. Despite his illness he did so much to inspire the youngsters of New Zealand to take up the sport and to chase down their dreams. In pursuing this selfless focus, he typified the values of the world’s most revered team.
For the All Blacks, their dominance comes not just from their size, skill and passion for the game but from the emotional connection which they share.
The All Blacks believe that they are connected by an unbreakable bond. This is not a shallow team building slogan but a deep spiritual belief which stems from the ancient Maori philosophy of Whakapapa.
In this philosophy each of us is connected in an unbreakable chain of people arm in arm with our forefathers to one side and their children and grandchildren to the other. This line of people spans back to the dawn of time and extends forward beyond our imagination. With the line fixed, the sun passes down the line allowing one generation to be in full light and their sons and fathers in half shadow before passing forwards down the line to light the next generations. Our forefathers never disappear but their time in the light has passed.
Children at Lomu’s old school Wesley College, Auckland, honoured him in the way they knew best, by performing the Haka. This Maori war dance is a symbolic pre match ritual as each warrior summonses the strength and wisdom from their lineage before going into battle. Through their school these children were joined to Lomu through their own unbreakable chain of students. He has inspired them that anything is possible for their future and now it is there time to shine.
Announcing his retirement the day after Lomu’s untimely death, the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said: “To play alongside a guy you watched as a young fella was pretty amazing,” and he recounted seeing the crowds of fans at their training ground in Ireland in 2001. “I climbed off the bus, the whole mob came at me, I thought ‘this is cool to be an All Black’. But they kept running past, then I looked behind me and there was Jonah. That hit home to me about the superstar he was.
“He is a legend of the game, probably bigger overseas than he is in New Zealand. A lot of people around the world I’m sure will be hurting from hearing the loss of a great man and a great All Black.”
The saying goes that ‘once an All Black, always an All Black’ and this sense of permanence breeds the value based culture that has gained them worldwide respect.
In contrast with our modern world of instant celebrity, smash and grab bonuses and disposable performers, this philosophy underpins the team’s solid cultural foundation.
Far from being fluffy, whakapapa epitomises some of the toughest men in the toughest of sports. So is the greatest sign of our strength to sacrifice short term self interest in favour of longer term purpose?
If so, we may need to re-define the timeline in our definition of high performance.
In this new definition, sustained success would be prized. Business leaders who were inspired by the philosophy of Whakapapa would aim to leave their jobs in a better shape for those who followed. Knowledge sharing and mentoring would be commonplace and companies would have inspiring stories of rituals and shared values which pass through generations.
Jonah Lomu life blazed a trail for us to follow but just like on the pitch, his legacy will be difficult to catch.
Written by Jeremy Snape former England cricketer and Managing Director at Sporting Edge – solving business challenges using the winning mindset from sport.