Bestselling author and business coach James Kerr hosted a dinner with Xero to discuss the overlap in the philosophy of sport and business.

James makes a living coaching high performing teams and organisations, with experience inside environments including the All Blacks, Australian Kangaroos, Formula One, Team GB, Premier League Football and the US Navy Seals. This is especially relevant today as the All Blacks prepare for the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday.


During dinner, James spoke about the lessons that the world’s most successful sporting team can teach businesses and entrepreneurs. Especially when dealing with the pressure in their business lives. Conversation flowed among media, and entrepreneurs like Annabel Causer, Founder of Honest Brew, and Dom Jackman, CEO & Founder of Escape the City.

This is just a little bit of what we learned:

Character is essential in a high-performing team

The language of business and sports has always been interchangeable. Both are about strategy, vision and tactics. But one thing what sets the All Blacks or any high performing team apart is their durable sense of purpose and adherence to values. It’s their character and determination that keeps them winning. They contribute to a purpose that’s bigger than the individual.

The cardinal virtue is humility. “Better people make better All Blacks.” The leadership focus is to create a sense of maturity, self-sufficiency, leadership and connection. As one of the coaches says, ‘people will rise to the challenge as long as it’s their challenge’.

The enemies of high performance are entitlement and emotion. The person who has done it all, and asks ‘why should I?’ – and the persona who loses their head under pressure. Which is why the All Blacks seek to develop characters that are ‘emotionally connected, authentic and genuine contributors.’ The composition of the team has to be spot on. One person with the wrong mentality can screw it up. As they say, ‘No Dickheads!’

Set your own tempo

The Haka is not a ritual designed to disturb and unseat the competition. It is about setting your own tempo, about connection. Its sound is the sound of the earthquake, it’s about ancestors and the release of their soils from the soil to stand beside us in our struggle here on earth. Like all great teams, the culture is values-based – the All Blacks know what they stand for, and what they won’t. They have a clear vision of the future – to be the best team in the world and to win every game. They have a compelling sense of purpose – to leave the jersey in a better place – and this cultural mindset helps make them the most successful sporting team in the world with a win ration over 100 years off 78 percent.

Danger zone

A phrase within the All Blacks is ‘permission to enter the danger zone.’ It’s a process for taking on board criticism and things you don’t want to hear without fear or conflict. It’s about commitment to that as a team. Find a way to make taking feedback a regular part of your team. And make sure everyone is comfortable with the danger zone. Candor is critical.

Pressure is a privilege

The All Blacks are ‘trained to win’, and that means putting themselves under deliberate pressure. Training exercises condition them to expect the unexpected. The way the All Blacks prepare for pressure is to understand their ‘red head’ – that red mist, spiralling panic, imagined disaster and stress. This is chocking.The opposite is ‘blue head’, which is characterised by a clear brain, focus on task, slowed down time, widened vision. The All Blacks are trained to transition from ‘red to blue’. ‘Going blue’ is about bringing you back down to earth, getting grounded, returning to the present moment. Simple triggers and anchors bring them back down to earth in moments of pressure, regaining the optimum state for delivering the required result.

Respecting the soft qualities

Soft qualities are respected within the All Blacks. Off the pitch it’s really a gentle environment, a family. In fact, it’s very much the soft stuff that delivers the hard results. They believe in humility, never being too big to do the small stuff. And they are encouraged to lift their game a bit every time. This focus on culture, character, self-sufficiency and leadership has enhanced them competitively. It’s helped add some 15 percent to their win rate – already the highest in any sport. If you believe in character, and you invest in your culture, then the ‘score will take care of itself. If your focus is merely on results, on the short-term gain, you can end up like Volkswagen, compromised.

Why you need purpose, mastery and autonomy

Human beings cannot live without meaning. Purpose is something so strong that people give their lives to it. Human beings need to become masters of their trade and their destiny and they need to be left in peace to deliver it. Understanding this responsibility creates a compelling sense of higher purpose. It’s a good lesson for us all: if we play a bigger game, we play a more effective game.

Business is a kind of sport. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing rugby or designing software, the fundamentals are the same. It’s about bringing people together, connecting them to a powerful common cause, enabling them to be the best they can be, improving every day, growing both professionally and personally in an environment that they can enjoy and on a task that is fulfilling – and winning!