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A Legacy Is More Intimidating Than Any Opposition

The virtuous circle is the essential feature of any dynasty.

In the commercial, a very old man with a menacing stare pulls on a black jersey with a small single silver feather while a young woman sings “Bless ‘em All,” the tender hymn of the Allied Forces. Each man dissolves into the next younger one signifying the succession of greatness as they don the simple garment. These are the captains of the New Zealand national rugby union team, one of the most successful sports organizations in the world. There are no phone or beer company logos on the front of the All-Blacks uniform. What they have instead is winning record against every rugby team they have played, and have won more than 75 percent of their international matches. The plain black pullover is more than an article of clothing. It is the symbol of a dynasty.

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From Olympic sprinters to musical virtuosos, it is clear enough that our genes pass on special traits from parent to child. But how does the DNA for winning get passed along to an entire organization over the span of one hundred years? Simple, build a shared vision and culture for success into every activity for everyone everywhere every day.

It starts with recruiting the best talent. While the All-Blacks find prospects through a number of feeder schools and clubs, they invest in the development of talent in their Under-20 “baby-blacks” farm team which competes in many of the same international venues as the parent club. This gives them a real sense of what they will experience if they advance to the next level. If a player shows sufficient promise and progress in the All-Black “system” they are elevated to the professional club where they receive their numbered jersey as if it were a military promotion or a religious sacrament. The attainment of the symbol is a ceremony.

Each new player is assigned to a senior member of the team to teach and socialize the rookie. They share quarters on the road. The junior man is usually obliged to negligible forms of servitude such as carrying the senior man’s bags or making the late night beer run. It also includes more substantial activities like conditioning, running and lifting, and learning the art and craft of the complex playbook. They are also schooled in the ancient rituals, such as the haka, a traditional Mãori war dance, performed immediately prior to international matches facing their adversaries. More importantly, they learn the subtle arts like how to talk to talk to their teammates, dress and conduct themselves in public and on the field. An All-Black is an All-Black all the time. With discipline, the most wayward of talented youth become the masterful patricians of the game.

Once an All-Black retires, he has a new role and obligations to the team including scouting and recruiting, providing motivation and advice to the current squad and being a spokesman for the club. Whereas most leaders in companies work to keep their positions of power, the All-Blacks have built in a cycle of succession where the old have an essential role in bring up the new. The virtuous circle is the essential feature of any dynasty. The identity and value of the group is greater than any individual. This cannot be taught in a class or contained in clever slogan but must be experienced under the watchful eye of the initiated. The cost of entry is high and there can only be full membership. Few enter the ranks, but it is precisely this exclusivity that attracts the excellent. The great are never pushed but pulled along by their predecessors. It is easy to under estimate the power of the symbol, the song, the flag, and pledge, but when experienced in the capable hands of a master, they turn us to look towards greater horizons.

Jeff DeGraff

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Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

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