Legacy – 15 Lessons in Leadership, by James Kerr

Legacy sidewaysWhy this book:  Strongly recommended to me by the Commanding Officer of SEAL Basic Training Command about a year ago. Since then, it has become almost required reading in the SEAL teams, and James Kerr has been invited several times to speak to the SEALs about the All Blacks leadership model.  I’ve gotten to meet and know him and we have had a very engaging conversation about what makes great teams.   This book has also been brought into the core curriculum of All American Leadership consulting with businesses.  It tells a great story in a truly remarkable way.

 My impressions: This is the leadership book that has resonated with me more than any other. It continues to inspire me, and I pick it up occasionally and open it to random pages for inspiration.  It is short and practical and easy to read. I suppose it works for me, because it says better than I have been able to, what I believe makes a truly ‘elite’ team. It resonates with the ideal that I and people I have admired most in my military career strived for in the teams we led. It presents an ideal based on a real team – with similarities to elite commando units and other elite high performance teams in other contexts.

James Kerr was able to embed for 6 weeks with the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team – the most successful professional sports franchise in history. Unknown to those who don’t follow rugby, they are the apogee of a great and successful team in the world of rugby, which internationally, is much more popular than America’s favorite pastimes, baseball and football.   But what they have accomplished, and continue to accomplish is the goal of any great team, in any context.

Kerr talks about how the team stumbled and struggled, but got back on their feet, stronger than ever, by returning to their core value – that individual character and dedication to the team are their most important virtues. One key theme throughout the book is how the players own their culture and hold each other accountable for living up to its values. The coaches help and guide, but the players have to enforce amongst themselves the values that make them great.   Winning comes as a result of focus on character and teamwork. Focus only on winning-in-the-short-term can lead to compromise on the fundamental values of character and team work which will cost a team over the long run. Almost every great rugby player in the world wants to be a member of the greatest rugby team of all time, but the All Blacks select their players not based on who has the most talent, but who has the best character and will fit best in their team-first ethos. Their stated policy of ‘No Dickheads’ excludes highly talented prima-donnas.  And this approach has worked for them.  Extremely well.

The All Blacks build and draw energy from their history and traditions, and an almost spiritual connection to the Maori culture of New Zealand.   Those who might find their traditions and rituals corny, won’t fit. Either buy in to the Maori haka they perform at the beginning of every game, and the extensive use of Maori language and symbolism in their team, or you don’t become an All Black. The notebook given to each new member and the on-boarding acculturation process they enforce are intense and demanding. And for that reason, players on the All Blacks rugby team value their membership in this club as among their highest life priorities.   This motivates them to live by the values of the culture, or else be told to leave.   Such dedication is a goal for any great organization.

The title of the book is Legacy – 15 lessons in leadership with the tag line is “What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life.” Each chapter is one of these lessons. Some of the chapter/lesson titles include; Character, Adapt, Purpose, Authenticity, Sacrifice, Responsibility, Expectations, Ritual. 

A few of the many many great and inspiring quotes from this book include:

  • Aim for the highest cloud;
  • be a good ancestor – plant trees you’ll never see;
  • the strength of the wolf is the pack;
  • if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain;
  • leaders create leaders;
  • ritualize to actualize;
  • leave the jersey in a better place;
  • when you’re at the top of your game, change your game;
  • sweep the sheds – never get too big to do the small things that need to be done.

And there are many more.

There is so much quality in this book, it is difficult to capture it in a short review.   If you are interested in an intense, demanding, character-driven leadership model, read this book. I recently insisted that a friend of mine, a former marine and courageous leader himself, read this book. He did -3 times through – and he can’t stop talking about how it continues to inspire him.   Maybe that’s part of why we’re good friends!

A possible short coming. The All-Blacks are an all-male team and I grew up in the largely all-male world of the Navy SEALs – so clearly, this model resonated with me.  Many teams in today’s world however are mixed-gender, and I suspect that some of the particulars of this model would need adjustment to work in mixed-gender teams.   I believe that most of the what James Kerr describes as the All Blacks model in Legacy could be adapted slightly to make it work well in mixed-gender teams.   It would be an interesting discussion – how to adapt this testosterone-fueled model of leadership and team building to mixed-gender or even to all female teams.   It would be great to get some women’s perspective on that, but I am convinced it could be done – and to great effect, but this book leaves the whether, the how, and possible considerations, unaddressed.

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About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly, Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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