graham henry

The New Zealand cricket team is at an all-time low, so I thought I'd try to turn myself into a big rugby fan - and stopped by Bob Howitt's Graham Henry: Final Word (Harper Collins, 2012) for a read. It is not a classic and I managed to race through it on a return flight to Dunedin recently.

Let me start by saying what I am desperate to say. The hero of the story is the one in a supporting role - Wayne Smith. Every time he pops up in the story, there is something impressive going on.

Then let me also jump into the controversial issue: the way Henry blames the referee for the loss to France in the 2007 World Cup. I agree with him. The most penalised team in the World Cup earns two penalties all game and none after the 30th minute? It is a nonsense. Not only do I agree with him, I think he is entirely within his rights to write about it in his book. Goodness me - at the time of the nightmare he was awarded a Fair Play Award by an international body, one of only three occasions the award has gone to rugby. He handled himself so well at the time and so why can't he spill the beans now? He is telling his story. However what drips with irony is that he also lays the blame for the failed campaign on the 'obsession' which overwhelmed every aspect of the journey. And now when he writes his story - correct though I think he is - he is still being obsessive about it all. Sure - it was a 'decidedly bizarre' game (183). But, seriously, Sir Graham - does the narrative of the book really have to contain every single one of the 40 mistakes by the referee, listed at the exact time they happened?

I tend to read books like this with an eye for anything I can learn about leadership. The transformation of Henry from a take-charge autocratic leader to a stand-back facilitative one is the heart of the book for me. That takes some doing and it is testament to his ability to grow and to change and to learn from mistakes. I remember him at Auckland Grammar School - both when I was a student in 1977 and then on the staff in 1981 - and the self-description of an ego-driven autocrat does kinda fit with what I remember. He was gruff and aloof - but I do respect him for his ability to change. After the debacle of coaching the British Lions and the depression which followed, he found himself as third-in-charge - a mere technical assistant - of the Auckland Blues. He learned new skills and saw new perspectives which helped him later.

After this the facilitative leadership style took root around two realities - both of which draw immense respect from me. One is the way his two assistant coaches (Smith and Hanson) stayed with him for eight years. Gee - you gotta be good to inspire that kind of loyalty for that length of time in that kind of furnace. Then there was the development of the shared leadership group among the players themselves, enabling them to own and take responsibility for the All Black team. There were four on-field leaders and three off-field leaders. They helped set strategy and even adminster discipline. That was a big call to make as well.

A few other gems...
1. Being someone who sees little that is commendable with alcohol, I was drawn to the way the coaches turned around the binge-drinking culture inherited from the John Mitchell years, with people like Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens to the fore. Wayne Smith was the key instigator (surprise, surprise) with Brian Lochore's dictum - 'better people make better All Blacks' - a factor as well.
2. While only stated implicitly, I think he enjoys reminding his readers that Robbie Deans didn't think Dan Carter was suited to playing #10 when he came on the scene.
3. As captain, Tana Umaga took Henry aside and told him his team talks were worthless and so Henry stopped giving them.
4. Brendan McCullum beat Dan Carter to the #10 jersey in the South Island Secondary Schools team.
5. Henry's son-in-law asked for his daughter's hand in marriage on the night of the loss to France in 2007!

nice chatting



Ben Carswell said…
You're right - it is an easy read. I picked it up recently in Auckland & had it read by the following day. It also came across as a book that was hurriedly written, with a few factual errors, rather than being a detailed incisive perspective. Having said that, I enjoyed it...

Things that stood out for me were:

* GH's confidence - refusing to coach the 7th best team at CHCH High, he demonstrated a faith in his own credentials & ability. (Similarly at AKL Grammar w/ the First XV)

* His emphasis on revising targets after achievements/failures. To stand up after 2007 & say 'I want another crack' is the mark of the man. To succeed in it, vindicates him.

* His focus on innovation & change. You identified it in the binge-culture response & Tana telling him about the team talks - he reminded me of Woodward 2000-2003 in some ways.

Above all, I think it gave good insights into a Kiwi-male psyche, and a particular emphasis on leadership. I'm not sure he's been wise to bring up the 2007 stuff in such detail - Wayne Barnes has been unfairly stigmatised, but you'd expect that of a coach. (In the same way he defended Tana over the Brian O'Driscoll incident). Steve Hansen impressed me more when he said "We didn't lose because of Wayne Barnes, we lost because we didn't play well enough"

All in all, glad I read it. Will I use it any more? probably not too much, but thankful to have read it. Final reflection was that at times GH reminded me of my boss (although w/o the headmasterly side!).
Rhett said…
I enjoyed the book too, and also found his leadership transformation so interesting. Tim and I chatted about it last week.

I have more mixed feelings on the Wayne Barnes debacle. I agree it was a horrible refereeing performance that probably cost us the game, but I'm just not sure of the benefit of revealing it all now. I feel like it makes his exemplary attitude at the time seem disingenuous now.
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