Playing the enemy

Sport is a crucible of leadership

Sport is a crucible of leadership


Playing the Enemy

Sport is a crucible of leadership.  Walking out to play at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, and you will be faced with an average of 75,110 faces.  Unless you are wearing the red of the home team, you are unlikely to be given a friendly reception.  Sport gives leaders a moment to decide, a choice of clear paths and sporting leaders – from Joe Montana to Tom Brady of the New England Patriots; Sir Bobby Charlton to John Terry; Douglas Jardine to Andrew Strauss – are celebrated and examined from every angle.  But perhaps the greatest sporting leadership story of all time features a politician: Nelson Mandela.

John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy – which became the movie Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman – tells the inside story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  It was a time when the newly free South Africa was still finding its way.  Racial tensions were running high.  The nation was poised between anarchy and retribution and a brighter but more difficult future.

Nelson Mandela appreciated, however, that the Rugby World Cup offered a once in a lifetime chance to bring the country together.

This seems obvious enough.  Sport’s unifying force is widely acknowledged – that is why cities now compete to host the Olympic Games.   But, in South Africa rugby was the white man’s game.  Seeking black South Africans to identify with the white rugby team appeared a task too far, even for the formidable leadership skills of Mandela.

In Robben Island, Mandela had learned Afrikaans in order to speak with his captors.  He realised how close to their hearts rugby was.  In 1995 he used this love of the game to bridge the gap between black and white.  By wearing the South African Springboks rugby shirt at the final, and repeatedly sporting a Springboks cap in the months beforehand, Mandela made it clear that supporting the national team was open to all.  It was symbolic, powerful, unifying and brave leadership.

Meeting John Carlin, the affect of Mandela remains powerfully present.  A hugely experienced journalist who has worked throughout the world, Carlin lights up at the mention of Mandela’s name.  His speech is enlivened, passion fills his words.  He knows that he had a front-row seat to remarkable leadership.

But what can a mere mortal learn from the leadership of Mandela?  First, Mandela tuned into his followers.  If, as he dreamed in Robben Island, South Africa was to be free then the white population also needed to be listened to and their concerns and passions understood.  Leadership begins with listening, tuning into the needs and fears of your followers.

Second, leadership is not about taking the easy option.  By so publicly backing the Springboks, Mandela ran the very real risk of being ostracised by his own supporters.   Third, leadership often involves powerful symbols.  For Mandela to wear a Springboks rugby shirt at the final was a hugely symbolic moment for the fledgling nation.  South Africa’s leader communicated that they were all in it together and he did so not by rhetoric or edict, but by simply wearing a rugby shirt.

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