Hear The Roar: The New Zealand All Blacks, The Haka, And How You Can Rewrite Your Team’s Mission When Culture Goes Stale
Not sure how you’d answer, but when someone calls me and offers me the chance to fly 17 hours across the globe to learn from the most bad-ass sports team on the planet, I say, “YES!” and then jump on a plane.
That actually happened earlier this year when I flew out to spend time with leaders and legends from the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team. Just this month, the team opened play in the Rugby World Cup by defeating South Africa 23-13, and they’re eyeing a third consecutive World Cup title—something that’s never been done before.
Even if you’re familiar with the All Blacks, you probably still weren’t aware of their dominant 77 percent winning percentage against the planet over the last century. What you’re probably familiar with is the head-turning, attention-grabbing, pre-match chant known as the haka.
It’s a tribal tribute to the initial inhabitants of the island—the Maori people. It’s passionate, fierce, and often intimidating to opposing teams. It’s unmistakable, and it’s enormously ritualistic, reflecting Maori culture.
It is the pivotal moment before the battle. A war-cry.
I believe that some of the most important words you say are the words you say to yourself. That’s essentially the haka—more specifically the Ka Mate Ka Mate, which references the honor in both death and life and how each step the Maori take brings them another step closer to shining like the sun.
In 1905 that haka became the battle cry for the All Blacks. Most importantly, it became their identity. Through the haka, New Zealand rugby owned its history—embraced and protected the chanting of the haka as they would go on defeating the rest of the world.
But in 2004, the team and head coach Sir Graham Henry owned a pivotal moment in their haka history. That single moment created a change that spearheaded more dominant victories and a win rate that peaked above 92 percent.
You see, New Zealand rugby had hit a lull—dropping from the number one ranking in the world down to third. For a country that loves this sport, that’s disastrous. They went to play a tournament in South Africa called the Tri-Nations, between South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand—and they finished 3rd out of 3 teams. However, despite the last-place finish, the post-match revelry was filled with laughter and debauchery—players were drinking as if they were indifferent about the terrible finish.
Graham Henry and his assistant coach sat stunned and confused. On the flight home, the assistant used a member of the flight staff to deliver a handwritten note to Henry that said, “Is this the culture of the team we have? This isn’t what I signed up for. And if we can’t change it, I don’t want to stay.”
That note was a game-changer because it sparked Henry to own up to the responsibility of being more than just a leader of the All Blacks—he became the leader the All Blacks needed at that moment.
Henry brought in Derek Lardelli, an expert in tikanga Maori, to meet with the team. After talking about the haka and its history, Henry then announced to the club that they were going to rewrite the haka. With the help of Lardelli, the players and coaches would craft a haka that reflected who they were and how they wanted to be remembered.
They debuted their new haka, Kapa O Pango, before the 2005 Tri-Nations tournament. That year, the All Blacks won.
What I love about this story is how the coach, the players, and the history of the island came together to create something new, while honoring something historic. So often, our companies and organizations find themselves at a crossroad—the mission that motivated us yesterday no longer motivates us today. And while we often challenge ourselves to just tighten our chinstraps and dig a little deeper, sometimes, a bigger change is needed.
Sometimes, we have to re-imagine our mission in order to better connect with it. We have to re-write our culture statement in order to preserve it.
In the lifespan of all organizations, there are ups and downs. Even great companies have lulls. And one of my favorite things to do as a student of leadership and a student of great teams is to try to find the inflection point—the moment when things turn one way or another.
For the All Blacks, it was the Kapa O Pango, but I wonder, what might it be for your company? Are you willing to rewrite your mission in order to save it?
It’s a question worth considering, and if you find you need a little inspiration, I have just the thing: the All Blacks next World Cup match is Wednesday, October 2nd. Give it a watch. Let their passion inspire yours.
I spent time with the most bad-ass team on the planet, and it gave me a new perspective on my own mission to pursue and study Greatness. If you’ll give them a chance, they might just do the same thing for you.