I am a self-confessed rugby fan and an adopted New Zealand All Blacks fanatic. I’ve seen them play a number of times including at their home ground of Eden Park which is the most electric place you could ever watch a match. Now, you might be wondering why I’ve written this for LinkedIn – a social media business site and my own site – but bear with me as we bring about the similarities and the timeliness.
First, “Invictus” is a short Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henle. It was written in 1875 and published in 1888 — originally with no title. Invictus means “unconquered” in Latin and was also the title of the film, “Invictus” from 2009. The movie is about how the South African Springboks defeated the All Blacks in the famous 1995 Rugby World Cup match. Following the fall of apartheid, newly elected President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) faces a South Africa that is racially and economically divided. Believing he can unite his countrymen through the universal language of sport, Mandela joins forces with Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of the rugby team, to rally South Africans to beat the normally invincible All Blacks.
I watched the semi-finals of the 2015 Rugby World Cup (played every four years), Australia again fell to the All Blacks – though it was a good match on both sides.
My three takeaways on the poem, match and business:
1. Self-Confidence: The Springboks’ Jannie Du Plessis knows how important it is for the his team to take the field with a self-confidence born of years of competing on almost level terms with New Zealand, and not to be inhibited or fearful of error against the most potent counter-attacking and predatory side in world rugby. He says: “It is like the clever guy that worked with the IndyCar drivers, who were asked what happened when they lost control, and they told themselves, ‘Don’t go into the wall, don’t go into the wall, don’t go into the wall’, and, of course that is what did happen,” Du Plessis said. “In sport, you have to think of the outcome you want to happen, not the outcome you don’t want to happen. The All Blacks can score five tries in 10 minutes if you make mistakes. So don’t worry about mistakes, about dropping the ball or giving away a penalty, just concentrate on where you want to be at the end of the day.”
Business relevance: Take chances. Take risks. Don’t think of the negative outcomes, but guide your team to the positive results that are possible.
2. Controlling Your Destiny: In a speech to the House of Commons in December 1941, Winston Churchill paraphrased the last two lines of the poem, stating; “We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls.” The poem was read by US POWs in North Vietnamese prisons. James Stockdale recalls being passed the last stanza, written with rat droppings on toilet paper, from fellow prisoner David Hatcher. While incarcerated at Robben Island prison (where actual scenes from the movie were filmed in his original cell) Nelson Mandela recited the poem to other prisoners and was empowered by its message of self-mastery.
Business relevance: Hopefully none of us will be involved in leading a nation to war, or in a POW camp or imprisoned while fighting injustice. In our corporate lives though, we have to believe that we can control our destiny and fight for our goals and objectives.
3. Unconquerable: There is a line in the poem that goes, “My head is bloody, but unbowed”. This line was used in the Daily Mirror’s headline the day after the July 7th 2005 London bombings. The Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stated, “This poem had inspired my father, Aung San, and his contemporaries during the independence struggle, as it also seemed to have inspired freedom fighters in other places at other times”. One of the meanings of unconquerable is, “A sense of achievement; of conquering the unconquerable – of pitting human wits against giants and winning—a sporting chance.”
Business relevance: Many of us have been bloodied in our professional lives at least once and probably many times. Though it trivializes peace activists and those that have fought for what they believe in – the message is that when fighting against bigger rivals, when you win – you can feel the sense of achievement of doing something others thought not possible.
One of the things I love about rugby is that these games pit nations against each other and the intense national rivalry but also the sportsmanship shown by the teams. In 2015 the host nation (England) suffered a humiliating loss to the Australian Wallabies and did not advance from pool play – the first host country to do so. The headline of the Daily Mirror screamed: “End of the World”. Though it was a bitter defeat, the players and the fans shook hands and vowed to improve their game over the next four years.
I had the honor to meet Francois Pienaar when he was a motivational speaker at Juniper’s Global Partner Conference around five years ago. A couple of years later, I spent some time with him at the Dimension Data Sunshine Tour event – he had just broken a club (not by throwing). He’s a big man – Matt Damon had to be filmed at flattering angles to mimic him – and Francois is humble, funny, and smart. He talks about the message of leadership on the pitch and off. I’ve also had the chance to the visit Mandela’s homes, walk the streets of Soweto (wearing my All Blacks shirt) and in 2019 will run the Comrades Marathon – first ran in 1921 – a distance of 90 kilometers from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.
Though I’m still an All Blacks fan, I believe in Invictus. If you’ve never watched the movie, catch it this week. If you’ve never watched rugby – catch a game in person or TV or go to a 7s tournament. You might get hooked and become a believer also. No matter who wins.
The full poem:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.