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Business and Sport in Union

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In the next few weeks the world's best rugby union nations from the northern and southern hemispheres will entertain sports fans in Great Britain, Ireland and France with a blend of bone crunching aggression, breathtaking agility and silky ball handling skills.

Many companies will use these matches to entertain their most important clients offering a rich menu of top class rugby and 'haute cuisine.' But I doubt many hosts will be bold enough to tell their guests that the feast before them provides one of the best examples of the mental approach required to succeed in business.

For many years I have told prospective and existing employees that rugby, as well as a few other team sports (apart from football/soccer), provides valuable lessons for business professionals. Most listen with a bemused expression as I talk about the sporting attributes of rugby and how they relate to business.

If I was given the authority to rank rugby players in terms of their ability to provide the ultimate business lesson then the New Zealand 'All Blacks' captain Richie McCaw would be a professor. With 113 caps for New Zealand, 101 on a winning side, he displays higher levels of courage, confidence, tenacity and teamwork than most of his sporting rivals and probably the majority of CEOs from the Fortune 500.

Whenever McCaw and his team take to the field they have completed a lengthy due diligence on the opposition and have rehearsed their game plan time and time again. Training always includes 'what if scenarios' so they can adapt to situations when the play breaks down, which is an inevitable situation for companies as well as rugby teams. If someone makes a mistake there is no blame culture, merely the acknowledgement from the skipper and other senior players that sport (business) is full of challenges and that you should learn quickly and move on.

This is an important lesson for the business world. A blame culture will erode teamwork, inhibit creativity and stop people taking risks and making valuable suggestions. People will spend more time thinking about covering their mistakes than taking the initiative.

McCaw has enormous mental strength and a strong team ethic. Even if confronted by a thundering herd of English or Springbok giants he will not hesitate to put his body on the line. He is not interested in galloping around the field in search of his own glory. Such an example ensures that personal glory always come second to collective achievement. Successful rugby teams, like prosperous businesses, are built on the strength of the team not on the brilliance of one or two talented individuals.

Whenever McCaw has scored one of his 19 international tries there is no swallow dive over the line followed by a wide armed breast beating victory salute. He just gets to his feet, shakes a proffered hand and jogs back to his own half ready for more work. Such humility is an important attribute for any leader. Leaders with humility direct their ego away from themselves to the larger goal of leading their company to greatness.

Facing a TV interview at the end of the match McCaw always praises the opposition with genuine respect before acknowledging, modestly, the team's hard fought victory.Respect for your competitors ensures that over confidence never erodes your competitive edge. Psychologists have determined that over confidence causes business people to overestimate their knowledge, underestimate risks, and exaggerate their ability to control events. A dangerous mix.

The business world is always eager to adopt new management techniques and lessons to improve their performance and profitability. The autumn rugby internationals should be compulsory viewing.