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Strategic Leadership Institute

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When Underdogs Outperform The Stars

02/11/2011 10:42



Everyone loves a “underdog” story and in the world of sport it doesn’t get much better than this: On Saturday 29 October the Golden Lions – a squad of underdogs including only 3 players with any international experience – completely outplayed the Natal Sharks (a squad of stars of which no less than 16 players have international experience) to become the Currie Cup rugby champions for 2011.

The last time the Lions were able to win the prestigious Currie Cup (first contested in 1892) was way back in the previous century (1999) and on paper they once again hardly had a chance again this year.  They only had three players with international experience of which only one was part of the 2011 Springbok World Cup squad (where he spent most of his time keeping the bench warm). The rest of the team were relatively unknown and (in retrospect) certainly underrated. The Sharks, on the other hand, had thirteen international players in their starting line-up (there’s  15 players on the field, in case rugby is not your game) and another 3 Springboks on the bench as replacements. No less than 8 Sharks were part of the 2011 Springbok World Cup squad and 2 of them were nominated for the prestigious South African Rugby Player of the Year Award.


However, in spite of facing heavy odds the zeal with which the Lions went about their business soon saw their highly celebrated opponents completely outplayed in just about every facet of the game. Their young backline showed courage and an eagerness to run with the ball at every opportunity while their comparatively inexperienced forwards defended like Trojans to keep their counterparts from scoring in spite of the fact that the Sharks had more than 60 percent possession of the ball (which is quite important if you want to score, in case you’re wondering).

So what went wrong? The same thing that happens when highly talented and skilled individuals in companies, projects and teams fall short of expectations simply because they rely on their individual abilities in stead of creating constructive synergy by merging their talents with the rest of the group.

The Lions, in spite of being regarded as individually mediocre compared to the star-studded Sharks, combined into a destructive force where each player gave what they could to contribute to a magnificent and ultimately unstoppable team effort. Revealing the secret of how this was achieved, Doppies la Grange, Lions vice-captain, explained afterwards  that captain Joss Strauss and the coaches motivated the team to achieve “extraordinary things” because the men believed in each other. “He (coach John Mitchell) turned an ordinary bunch of guys into stars. We played for each other and that doesn’t start on the field, it starts outside with great coaching,” according to La Grange. On the other hand, while giving full credit to the Lions for “completely outplaying” his team, Sharks coach John Plumtree admitted that they did not have enough time to fully integrate their World Cup Springboks into their structures after they returned to South Africa two weeks ago.

So what do I take away from a humiliating (yes I’m a Sharks fan) final score of 42-16 apart from a great underdog story? Well as a firm believer in discovering, developing and working with our natural talents I once again realize the critical importance of attaining unity when working as a group. To achieve excellence, the leader or coach has to harness, hone and focus individual talents and strengths into a synergistic whole. As leaders in the volatile and ever-changing working environment of the 21st Century we not only need to be able to spot, source and develop individual talent and skills, we also need to be able to merge these into synchornized units. When all is said and done there is little doubt in my mind that coordinated harmony nearly always trumps individual brilliance.