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Lessons on Improving School Culture from the All Blacks

The All Blacks are a phenomenally successful sporting team. Few would argue about the supremacy of the team in their sport. They have an extraordinary winning rate of over 86% and are the current World Champions. They have an invincibility about them that stems from a deeply ingrained culture of teamwork, professionalism and personal commitment. As school leaders we can learn lessons from their success that apply to our work in improving our school’s culture and effectiveness.

Over the summer I have enjoyed reading James Kerr’s book, “Legacy – 15 lessons in leadership. What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life”. Many of the lessons are clearly relevant to the challenges of school leadership.

The All Blacks are a fantastic illustration of a high functioning team – together they are far more than a collection of fifteen individual players. They are “…a culture, an identity, an ethos, a belief system – and a collective passion and purpose”. Isn’t that what we aspire for in our school’s culture?

One of the approaches that we could benefit from is the team debrief immediately after a game. Kerr describes the etiquette as like a whare, a Maori meeting-house, where everyone is given the opportunity to speak, to say their truth, to tell their story. Whilst we aspire to that in staff teams in our school, it takes an exceptionally high level of maturity and trust to have an honest and open conversation, especially when results aren’t great. Often educators soften our feedback to a colleague and put our true opinions in to politically correct ‘spin’ for fear of upsetting them. It takes a brave person to confront the reality and address underperformance that is impacting on student achievement. We often tip-toe around for fear of hurting other people’s feelings. At times we are too thin skinned for our own good.

Famed US football coach Vince Lombardi observed, “The challenge of every team is to build a feeling of oneness, of dependence on another.” Collective character is vital to success. It is important that we foster teams that take a mature approach and develop a collective responsibility for the best possible education outcomes for their students. No excuses, no shirking of responsibility, if what we are doing isn’t working, it is essential that we take ownership, confront reality and improve our practice. Focus on getting that culture right; the results will follow.