Legacy, by James Kerr

Why I read it – six years ago, I was preparing to move on from a position I loved, Head of English, to the much-feared Head of Year role (there was nothing to worry about, it was a brilliant job!). I made it my mission to practise my public speaking, sharpen up my knowledge of the students’ names, and to read as many books as possible to support my assemblies, which, in my head, were going to be TED talk-esque, world beaters. Legacy was the first ‘leadership’ book that I read, and I got on the bandwagon just after it had come out. It is a widely-read book now, and has, I’m sure, provided many quotable moments for others as it did for me.  In fact, I am on my third copy: the first I lent to someone and have no recollection of who that was; the second copy I bought was lent to a friend, Hannah, who left it in the sun during her holiday in Turkey; it whitewashed and she kindly replaced it before breaking the news – I actually prefer battle-scarred books, but I now have a pristine, third copy.

My point is that, while it isn’t the most nuanced, Legacy travels well, and everyone can learn something from the 15 ideas proposed.

In summary

James Kerr studies 15 principles from the All Blacks (New Zealand’s Rugby team) to see what has made them so successful over the decades, whichever crop of players they have at their disposal. The book features countless examples of their values and identity, as well as interviews, and plenty of references to other leadership and performance books.

Each All Black principle has a chapter dedicated to it, complete with Māori proverbs (Whakataukī) which are wise and poetic in equal measure, as Kerr pays homage to the Māori identity and culture that runs through the organisation and country.

Key takeaways

  1. Sweep the sheds – the premise of this chapter is that the All Blacks clean up their changing room after every game, carry their own bags, and in their words ‘no one looks after the All Blacks, the All Blacks look after themselves’. As you can imagine, this commitment to cleaning and picking up rubbish was a wonderful discovery for a Head of Year 9, trying to convince 14-year-olds to leave the playground in a fit state. But the message goes far beyond that; it comes down to discipline, respect, and team identity. And if you’ve seen the state of football changing rooms after most matches, this attitude is certainly not the norm.
  2. Shared responsibility – when the All Blacks were going through a period of change, they decided to put more responsibility into the hands of the players. Leadership groups were formed, and senior players would have responsibility to set the tone and culture for the others. At the beginning of the week, management and the senior players would outline the plan for the build up to a match, and as the week went on, those players would take over responsibility for the preparation. As Kerr summarises, ‘shared responsibility means shared ownership. A sense of inclusion means individuals are more willing to give themselves to a common cause.
  3. No dickheads; follow the spearhead – yes, this is verbatim from the book! The Māori term Whānau means your family, your mates, your team – for that to move forward, everyone has to be pulling in the same direction. Kerr quotes the Arab proverb, ‘it’s better to have a thousand enemies outside the tent, than one inside’, then moves onto a similar Maori saying, before finally reflecting on the All Blacks’ mantra: no dickheads. Players are selected on character over talent. This is a team that will give everything for each other, with a collective identity and vision – everyone must buy into it.

Favourite quote

At the end of the book, Kerr includes the Whakataukī that have helped inform the principles and wisdom shared throughout Legacy. As I mentioned earlier, they are wise, poetic, and often profound.

And the one that really spoke to me as a person and leader?

Te timatanga o te matauranga ko te wahangū, te wāhanga tuarua ko te whakarongo

The first stage of learning is silence; the second stage is listening.

Favourite moment

My favourite chapter doesn’t generate soundbites as exciting as the ones above, but for me it is the most important. The twelfth principle, Language, explores communication, and in this case ‘inventing your own language’. Kerr discusses how important it can be for a team to have its own unique vocabulary, mottos, or principles, which are clearly and often communicated. It sews the team together, unites them under a common language, and gives them a sense of identity from the inside and the outside of the circle – in the way they perceive themselves and how others perceive them. There are plenty of examples from different industries, but in short Kerr sums it up with: ‘words start revolutions.’

Question and reflect

  • People and players come and go, but do we invest in our long-term identity and culture as a team or organisation? We must prioritise the values that are expected of, and last beyond, those in the team.
  • What characteristics do we value most from our staff and teammates? Have we thought and articulated what kind of personalities and values will be most welcome to promote the wider team ethos?
  • Have we established a common language that encompasses our culture and values? How can we take our mottos or vocabulary and utilise it to unite the team and create a clear set of principles? Then, communicate, communicate, communicate.

Read this if…

You want an insight into how an elite sports organisation creates a culture of purpose and togetherness

You like reading about a wide range of examples about teams from several industries

Support book shops and find it here

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