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Rassie Erasmus, Steve Jobs and The Main Thing

“Let the main thing be the main thing. The rest will follow.”

What is your main thing for 2024? Let’s take some inspiration from the 2023 heroes, the Springboks.

The above words belong to Rassie Erasmus, Springbok coach. He repeated them over and over during the 2019 World Cup, and the lead up to it. Rassie knew. As an ex-superstar player, he was acutely aware of the hubris that can come with recognition and success. How a great victory can often precede an even greater humiliation in defeat. How the distraction of being famous and being a role model can distract and detract from the main thing. So he drilled it into his players. Inspire people? Sure. But we need to win to do that. Be a symbol for the nation? Of course. But only if we win. Win. Win. Win.

The line, of course, can be attributed to Stephen Covey, the author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. And it’s a great principle, not only applicable to champion sports teams but also to legendary founders.

There’s an interesting parallel between what happened with the Boks in 2019 and what happened to Apple under Steve Jobs. Ah, Steve Jobs.

Ever since Simon Sinek did his famous “Start with Why” Ted Talk (and bestselling book), the world has once again really paid attention to the idea of Higher Purpose, and how it specifically permeates the Apple success story. How the idea of creating incredibly beautiful and highly functional electronic devices translated to one of the world’s most valuable companies. How Jobs managed to attract and mobilize the top talent to his vision, and how they were relentless in chasing down his vision. It is said he would spend hours debating the colour the device would come in, literally rejecting hundreds of shades of blue before deciding on the exact tone.

Apple’s higher purpose: Beauty. But here’s the thing. That higher purpose revealed itself only over time, and only after a bunch of abject failures. And only after Steve Jobs fixed the basics.

What were the basics? Well, Jobs was famously fired by his own board in the mid-80s, his maverick behaviour no longer acceptable in the more corporatized environment of a listed company. It took the suits more than a decade to realize they made a mistake, and they bought him back (literally, they bought Jobs’s new company NEXT). And what was the first thing he did?

He fired almost everybody. Staff. Board directors. There were no sacred cows. But he also made sure he kept the best people, redesigning stock options to stop the bleed of top talent after the stock price tanked before he got there. He slashed product lines by 70% and brought the focus back to just four core offers: Desktops and MacBooks for business, Desktops and MacBooks for private use.

And only after he refocused the efforts, only after he streamlined the team, did the sexy stuff start. The design. The beauty. The toys we all know and love today.

Let’s plot the similarities a little bit:

Focus on core products: For Apple, it was desktops and laptops. With no customization. For South African rugby, it was focused on core strengths of forward-dominated play and player depth. And they even made it sexy by way of the Bomb Squad.

Relentless execution on differentiation: The products would be sleek and beautiful, and would look different from everything else. Much like some of the surprising moves executed by the Springboks at critical moments in both World Cups.

First, the basics: The Springboks, and Jobs, did the hard lifting first. Of creating the right culture. Of aligning effort. Of keeping the talent needed, being ruthless about those who didn’t fit the culture, and bringing in fresh legs to bolster the effort.

Then the inspiration: The fairytale story – the Siya story – only really gained international legs towards the business end of the tournament, as the team – and the management – realized the opportunity presented to both win and inspire the nation.

Then the repeat: Another World Cup, this time under arguably much harder conditions. The competition was fiercer, the environment more hostile, the margins tighter. And this can also be said for Apple’s foray into cellphones, earbuds, even watches… all areas where they would quickly dominate their sector. But now the Boks, like Apple, had learned to leverage the higher purpose, the idea of doing it for the downtrodden in South Africa, the idea to lift themselves beyond their best in order to give hope. And that made all the difference.

The basics were fixed first. The team aligned, the direction set, the commitment given. Only then did the higher purpose come to the fore. And that’s the way it should be. But boy, once it became a thing, they both really leaned into it.

There is enough research now available for us to know that what worked in previous generations won’t work anymore. In modern society, people are more likely to move around careers often, lifers are rare and those that stay are because of what they believe. They stay because they believe in the company, what it does, who it does it for, and their role in it.

What gets you up in the morning? What is it that will drive you through the low moments of 2024, and get you through to the highs on the other side? And, if you’re struggling to articulate that higher purpose… maybe go back to basics?

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