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Updated 24 Sep 2020

Nick Mallett on why leaders must play to their team’s strengths

How former Springbok coach Nick Mallett had to learn to let his team play to their individual strengths – and why you should do the same in your business. 

17 January 2015  Share  0 comments  Print

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Nick Mallett took the mantle of Springbok coach when he was 40 years old. He’d spent most of his life playing rugby and he thought he knew it all.

He would go on to lead the team to a record 17 consecutive test wins, but more importantly, he learnt to be a better coach and leader, in large part thanks to lessons he learnt from his team, and not the other way around.

“My career’s been marked by lessons, as it should be for any leader,” he says. “The first step of real leadership is understanding that you don’t simply take the mantle and lead. You become a leader because people choose to follow you.” It follows that you therefore need to be worthy of that loyalty.

“It takes an inclusionary mindset to really get this right,” says Mallett, highlighting a key lesson that he had to learn during the 1999 World Cup.

“When we went into the World Cup, I had a game plan that didn’t take the various strengths of my team into account,” he recalls.

“Going in, my entire strategy was built around Henry Honiball. He was the best defence flyhalf in the world, and so my whole plan was to use him to attack the line. The problem was that we arrived in Wales and almost immediately he was injured. My key player was out of the tournament indefinitely.”

Playing to strengths

“My replacement was Jannie de Beer. Now Jannie is a very different player to Henry, but I didn’t want to change my game plan. It was a good plan, and I wanted Jannie to follow through on it, so I kept pushing him to attack the back line more.

"We’d been lucky to have an easy pool, and so even though Jannie wasn’t following through on my plan, we were headed into the quarter finals against England. I knew that we weren’t playing well enough to beat England though, and so I kept putting more and more pressure on him.

“And then another team member, Brendan Venter, told me frankly and honestly that I needed to stop asking Jannie de Beer to play like Henry Honiball, and start letting him play like Jannie de Beer. ‘He’s one of the best drop goal kickers in the world, and you haven’t asked him to focus on this at all,’ he said. ‘Utilise his strengths and work out a drop goal strategy.’ I was so focused on my ‘winning game plan’ that I’d ignored the strengths of my team members. Brendan was absolutely right.

“The result was a completely new game plan that stopped asking Jannie to do things he simply wasn’t comfortable with, and instead played to his strengths. He scored a record five drop goals in the next game, and we beat England, putting us through to the semis against Australia. He was outstanding.”

Guiding and inspiring

“This was when I really started to understand what it meant to be a leader. It wasn’t only about throwing my weight around and making all the decisions.

"It was also about being approachable enough that one of my team could have a completely open and honest conversation with me, to the point where he was actually offering his opinion on where I was going wrong, and then having the grace to change my tactics completely based on that advice.

"It was about evaluating each team member on their personal strengths and weaknesses, and then assisting them to play to their strengths. Leaders should guide and inspire. They shouldn’t just dictate because they can.”

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