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The Power of Purpose

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

(written just after the Rugby World Cup Final 2019)

I thought we had it nailed. After watching England's consummate team performance against the All Blacks a week before, I was dreaming big. They seemed to be peaking at just the right time. I watched and listened carefully for complacency in the post-match interviews and was encouraged by the understated: 'It earns us another week' and 'we came here to win the whole thing not just a semi-final' and 'we can still play better'. The team seemed grounded and focussed for the final hurdle.

Compare that with South Africa's performance in their semi-final and I was starting to think we're not only going to win, but by an embarrassingly big margin. How wrong could I have been?

Based on previous and building form, England were the clear favourites, but lost so heavily. How could this be? Eddie Jones doesn't seem to have an explanation. This morning, the Metro's David Gurney quoted Jones as stating: 'I've spoken to a lot of experienced coaches about it and everyone says the same thing, you just don't know. You're better off just putting it to the side and getting on with it'. That may be easier said than done for the England squad, who are likely to be hurting for some time. But I wonder if there is an explanation that resonates beyond the game of rugby.

As South African pundits anticipated last Saturday's Final clash I started hearing something that I hadn't heard before (perhaps I just hadn't had ears to hear it?). 'If we win this, it'll be bigger than 1995'. I could hardly believe my ears.

The film 'Invictus', telling the story of Mandela and the Springboks leading up to that famous victory in 1995, has long been one of my favourites. Surely the significance of that victory at that time in the nation's history showcasing Mandela's radically unifying style of leadership, could not be surpassed? But as I listened, it became increasingly clear that the moment a Black South African Springbok's captain from the townships lifted the world cup trophy could easily surpass that first victory. Yes - Mandela had opened up the possibility of the Boks being a truly national team. Without his leadership, I suspect we wouldn't even be close to contemplating what happened on Saturday. But to see the level of support for the Boks from across the Rainbow nation this time, enabled by a much more diverse side, led by a Black captain, was unprecedented. It suggested that something significant was shifting. It led to a moment on Saturday that was dripping with meaning.

The 10 P's of Power I talk on my leadership programmes about the 10 P's of power. South Africa certainly had two of these in abundant measure: their Physical Power and their Professional Power. Their 'brilliant brutality', as Gurney puts it, was evident for all to see. But did England lack these? Had they not shown them in equal measure just a week before? And the Power of Passion was surely evident in both? England had been preparing for that moment for the past four years, at least.

I have a hunch that a different 'P' was the crucial difference between the two sides on Saturday: the Power of Purpose. It is a source of power that many writers on organisations are citing as crucial to success, spoken of eloquently by Simon Sinek in his 2011 book, 'Start with why'. And there seems to be a growing body of evidence that suggests that a clear sense of purpose makes a significant difference to the bottom line.

For example, Ellsworth's 2002, 'Leading with Purpose' research showed that a clearly stated purpose added significantly to performance (measured over 10 years in terms of return to shareholders). But surely England had a clearly stated purpose, I hear you say: it was lifting that trophy? True. But Ellsworth also found that the focus of an organisation's purpose could make all the difference. In his study, organisations focused on delivering to shareholders added, on average, +17% to performance, compared to the mean. However, a customer-focussed purpose delivered +36%. A purpose that transcended delivering for shareholders actually delivered more to shareholders. The Law of Obliquity, John Kay calls it.

A transcendent purpose... England's sense of purpose probably didn't transcend the simple purpose of being the best in the world, and why should it? In itself, this can be a noble purpose. But South Africa's extra something on Saturday came, perhaps, from a purpose that transcended rugby. It was a striving towards a crucial and symbolic milestone in a country's rehabilitation from the years of oppression under apartheid. It was symbolised in their captain's journey from humble beginnings. As a whole nation erupted in celebration, it dared to believe that, maybe, just maybe, it is possible to turn things around. It was a purpose that stoked the fire under their passion and became an unstoppable force against England.

After several 'post-mortem' conversations since England's defeat, I don't think anyone in the England camp needs to fall on their sword. They did us proud. We were beaten by a side whose transcendent purpose in that stadium in Japan, at that time, in this moment in its history, made it simply unbeatable. I have taken more than a small crumb of comfort that our loss was to South Africa, and it was an important step on their long road to recovery. And even this England supporter can find cause for celebration in that.

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