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Five Leadership Priorities, Red Cards and Unconscious Bias

Effective leadership requires a delicate balance of numerous roles and responsibilities. However, there are fundamental areas where leaders should focus their efforts to ensure both personal and organizational success. Leaders shouldn’t micro-manage, get bogged down in senseless meetings, e-mails or impromptu conversations. And they definitely don’t have the time for idle procrastination. Their time is too precious.   


Assuming that the leader has a great team including a PA that has lifted a lot of the time-wasters off their shoulders, and they have the personal discipline not to spend the whole day on Instagram or YouTube, leaders should spend their time on these five things:  


  • Relationship management  

  • Talent Development & Empowerment  

  • Strategic Thinking & Innovation  

  • Financial Management (Metrics)  

  • Problem Solving and decision making  


For a great example, let’s again talk about Rassie, the Springboks and Relationship Management (and Problem Solving).  


Problem: The Springboks have a problem with referees. There is a sense that referees are biased against the team. Probably, mostly, because of a reputation issue. But also because of on the field ill-discipline and misunderstanding of the rules.   


Solution: Manage the relationships. Educate the players. Work to change perceptions and reputation. Make discipline a priority.  


Let’s get into some background.  


A red card is a penalty in rugby for a serious offence such as a high tackle or a repeat offence by the same player. It is something that referees use as an ultimate sanction, as it means the sending off and possible citing for the remainder of the game, as well as possible further suspension measures for that player. This will have a material effect on that team’s chances of success for that game, and possibly following games if it is a key player.  


South Africa’s greatest rival, the New Zealand All Blacks, prior to 2017, have had only two red cards in their history. And that is a 112-year history, people. So when Sonny Bill Williams got sent off against the Lions in 2017, 50 years had elapsed since the last one. 50 YEARS.  


Their arch-rivals, the Springboks, by comparison, have been frequent recipients of red cards. There have been three particularly famous incidents against the All Blacks that had material outcomes on the matches (the Springboks, after being competitive, were badly beaten once the offender got sent off). Johan le Roux in 1994, Andre Venter in 1997, and Bismarck du Plessis in 2013.   


So, the Springboks had received at least three against the All Blacks – and double that amount against other teams in test matches.   


Why is that? Is it because the Springboks are a less disciplined team? Is it because the Springboks are more prone to foul play? Or is it because, as many SA rugby fans believe: The refs are out to get us?   


Could I suggest it is all of the above? Robust play combined with a bad reputation does make for a bad mix. Whereas the All Blacks seem to have cultivated this halo of good sportsmanship, attractive rugby and nice guy behaviour. At least historically.  


How things have changed. From 2017 onwards, the All Blacks have received five red cards. In fact, they received 2 against the Springboks alone in 2023. That is a staggering turnaround in fortunes – especially if you consider the Springboks received no red cards in the World Cup, with one of the best all-round disciplinary records of all the teams.   


I would suggest that there are three main reasons for this: 


  1. A change in the technology 

  2. A change in the protocols  

  3. A change in perception 


Technology first. Video referees have been around for a while, and have been called on to support or debunk the calls of the referee on the pitch. What has become more prominent in recent years, though, has been the way one can measure and analyze data. Metres gained, tackles made, turnarounds stolen. The way video analysis combined with measurable indicators has allowed coaches to have a clearer understanding of what went right, what went wrong, and how to fix it and train for a better result. It also means referees become more consistent, as all major decisions will now have a tech element.  


And that brings us to protocols. Starting in 2022, much more emphasis has been placed on the video referees to make the call to upgrade yellow cards to red cards. And suddenly, the All Blacks have descended into the same muck that for so long enveloped the Springboks. Conversely, savvy coach Rassie Erasmus has been instrumental in driving protocols of consultation that eliminate any bias, at least the conscious ones. Sometimes resorting to tactics that would remind one of a bulldozer, he has been able to gain the establishment's attention, and get the lines of communication open that would enable him, and his team, to make the right calls at the right times. But that brings us to the unconscious bias…  

It's still subjective. Whether the ref on the pitch (who awards the yellows) or the ref in the bunker (who would call the reds) – they are human. And they will be influenced by their humanity. When Richie McCaw, a paragon of a human and one of the greatest captains the world has ever seen, led the All Blacks, referees revered him. The way he talked to them. Respected them. Worked with them. And his often blatant flaunting of the rules was frequently and frustratingly overlooked.  


These days, Springbok Captain Siya Kolisi wears that halo. Quiet, respectful, nice guy. The public at large adores him, referees are careful to show him respect, and, because he happens to be black in a sport dominated by white officials, there is the unspoken fear of unconscious bias. Which, of course, results in inevitable reverse unconscious bias for every single official who has to make a tough call. Add into this the way the whole team makes it clear to the refs, from start to finish, that all they want to do is play a clean game within the rules… well, perceptions have been shifted. The bias has been reversed. And the Springboks, so long the bad boys of world rugby, now enjoy the reputational advantage so long enjoyed by McCaw and co.  


It's great stuff, isn’t it?  


The leadership team of the Springboks beautifully focused on relationship management, problem-solving of one the biggest thorns in the side of the team and accountability through metrics to the players to follow through on what needed to be done. It’s not complicated – it’s just hard.   


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