Lessons in Leadership from New Zealand

by André Double.

Grant Fox is a former New Zealand Rugby Union International, who played fly-half and is now a successful CEO of the LED company Monstavision. In 1987 he played a pivotal role in the All Blacks team that secured victory in the first-ever Rugby World Cup. Among his many achievements, Grant is renowned for setting the world record for the highest number of points scored in a single Rugby World Cup tournament -126 points  (a record that still stands today). Additionally, he holds the world record for the most conversions in a single World Cup tournament, achieving a remarkable 30 conversions during the same 1987 tournament. Beyond rugby, Grant is a devout family man, and as I found out, a remarkably humble, caring and gracious individual – the hallmark of any international school principal. Here, we share his thoughts on leadership and their wider implications for international school principals. 

Question: Where do your values come from

Grant Fox: I think you are defined by nurture, so the environment you are brought up in. I was brought up in a farming environment, so I’m off the land. My parents were farmers, so on the land you learned about that. It was a community where sport was a big thing. The local tennis clubs up the road, the netball club which my mother played at. The cricket club, and the rugby clubs were all in town. Rural communities network a lot, so when you’re growing up, you see that when you go out.

On the farm with my father, I learned to drive the machinery and my father would let me make a mistake, so that really helped me to give things a go. So you learned, and you grew up to learn the value of people helping each other because that’s what farming communities do. You learned to take responsibility, because you are given responsibility, and you learned to own your own mistakes. When I went to Auckland Grammar School as a boarder if I had one value I live by it’s personal responsibility. You learned to take responsibility. You had to be incredibly organised. I observed my teachers and learned and grew as a result. So that for me was the nurture that I think defines the values that I live by – personal responsibility being the biggest of all and, I would like to think, honesty, integrity and loyalty. Those things, other people actually judge me on that more than I can judge myself.  But that’s inevitably what I try and live by and I make a few mistakes along the way, of course. 

Question: As an All-Black how long did it take you to learn what was the culture, what was expected of you, what you should and what you shouldn’t do? How long was that learning curve? 

Grant Fox: I don’t think you ever stop learning to be honest, but at the start, there are very clear parameters of what it looks like, and you are given your own space within that parameter because everyone’s an individual, you don’t want to clone people because that doesn’t work. People have to have a bit of freedom to express themselves and I would describe it as ‘you don’t have to be in the middle of the box, you can bounce around the edges’. If you go outside the box then you may create a problem. But if you come back in there may be a few behaviours you need to change. Nowadays, as with everything, it’s evolved and developed and changed. My induction was more a senior player putting his arm around me and saying ‘Hey, come with me, I’ll show you what this looks like. Nowadays, It’s a proper induction. These players do this for a living now. We did that as our past time, and we didn’t have the time they get to spend now. So there’s the mental side of the game and the environment and there’s more time to be given to it because we go back to education. My headmaster was (Sir) John Graham. Talk to anyone who went through under him – he left a mark – an unbelievable mark on people. He was firm but fair and he had an expectation of you. 

 “Everyone’s an individual, you don’t want to clone people because that doesn’t work. People have to have a bit of freedom to express themselves”.

In a way, I use the word ‘fear’ in inverted comments. You had a fear of letting him down. It was driven out of respect, not because you were frightened of this man, but because you didn’t want to let him down. That’s the fear he created, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, because if you go to the high-performing sports teams who are used to success, you come in with expectations. You have a legacy to live up to, and you want to leave your mark and actually try and leave it (the jersey) in a better position than you found it if you possibly can. So you occupy that jersey – you’re only passing through. You don’t own it – so you want to pass it on hopefully in better shape than you found it. So John Graham created that as a leader of Auckland Grammar School in my time.  

Question: In your opinion what makes an effective principal, what does an effective school leader look like?

Grant Fox: He/She has got to have a clear vision about what the school stands for, what they’re trying to achieve, what they expect the students to achieve, lining up with the things that education systems have to line up to. As the leader, you need to empower your staff to actually be the conduit most of the time between the headmaster and the future. 

“The best form of leadership for example, in my view, is to lead by example, you can’t ask others to do what you won’t do yourself”.

That needs to align, so it’s a very clear vision. A very clearly articulate vision of what you are trying to achieve, is clearly understood. And then you have to live it and don’t waver and be prepared that if things get a bit tough you’ve got to be resilient through that. You can’t decide to go whatever way the wind blows. The path you’ve charted. If you believe in it, whichever obstacles come along the way, you’ve got to be true to the path and not get distracted by those little bumps in the road. The strong principals are thinking, articulate leaders. The best form of leadership for example, in my view, is to lead by example, you can’t ask others to do what you won’t do yourself.

Question: What support might help leaders to make better decisions

Grant Fox: Steve (Hansen) asked an awful lot of questions. That’s essentially how we operate. He knew the game, I believe very, very well and the game for him was simple. But there’s no point in leaders just telling people what to do, because if you haven’t got them emotionally invested properly then how passionate are they going to be about what they’re trying to do? In rugby, we used to say that the jersey will take you so far, but the people who fill the jersey, they are the ones who will determine what happens here. So the ‘ask – don’t tell’ I think, is a very important part of how I think a leader in any leadership role should operate. 

Question: How important was mastery to you during your career?

Grant Fox: When I was younger I quickly learned that it was actually the routine of doing the work was actually more important than the outcome. (When kicking) often, a rough day on Friday would lead to a good day on Saturday and vice-versa. It took me a while to get to the point of dealing with the frustration of that. I understood that I was ticking a box and that’s the routine done. We didn’t have kicking coaches back then -. you just did it. 

Question: When you moved into business, were there transferable skills that you took with you?

I think there were transferable skills. The phrase I use is, ‘You learn more from adversity than from success‘. So (as a player) you’re facing adversity on a regular enough basis. Your staff are your biggest asset and they are also your biggest liability. ‘How am I managing that process when the staff members are not right’ I’ve got a business challenge or someone’s not playing ball?’ How do you handle all those? You take that into a team environment like you’re facing a situation in a game. ‘We’ve got a bit of adversity here, how are we going to deal with this?’  So I think with those skills there’s resilience that comes through. I think nowadays, because we live in more of a bubble, we talk more about resilience than we ever did. Back then it was just an expectation that you had. But to be fair, they’ve drilled down an awful lot deeper now, because of what they do for a living. 

One of Steve’s key coaching things was managing. Everyone wants more time to do their bit. But the players can only take so much. You want to keep them motivated and hungry. If you keep them in a classroom all day, players would end up being demotivated. So managing that time I think Steve did well. We are often taught you need to have all the skills and knowledge – everything to do the job. You need to be exceptional at it. I beg to differ because the number one rule in management is to treat people properly. If you can’t do that, you are not going to be the leader that people want to play for.  And you can always group people around you to help, and if you’re smart enough and not threatened by someone excelling, and I know that Steve and Ian (Foster) more latterly, are absolutely not. You surround yourself with people. Yes, you have to have a degree of knowledge but you don’t have to be an expert, because you can employ people to help you. Surround yourself with people, and give them responsibility for implementing and managing that process. And usually, that works.

“The number one rule in management is to treat people properly”.

Question: How do you think your employees would describe you?

Grant Fox: I would like to think that that they think I’m someone who treats them properly. We have a very flat management structure. I’m a CEO yes, but I don’t sit anywhere in an office, I sit in an open-plan area. There is another person who’s been in the business that I now run, a lot longer than me, who’s way more emotionally intelligent than me and smarter than me and knows his side of the business. The business that I brought into it, I know well. It’s not me being a titular CEO, I don’t like being a preacher, I prefer an inclusive, engaged structure. I can walk out to where we store our LED equipment and we’ve got people working on the floor and I’ll wander out and go and say hello. 

Towards the end of the interview, I asked Grant if there were any moments in the history of rugby where he would like to have experienced being in someone else’s shoes. It says a lot about Grant that he thought long and deeply about choosing the appropriate individual moment that ‘contributed significantly to the overall team’. He reminisces about Gareth Edwards scoring the the famous Barbarians try and then eventually settles on being John Kirwan scoring the try from his own 22, against Italy in the 87’ World Cup. ‘That moment brought the whole World Cup to life’, he tells me. 

My special thanks to Grant Fox, MBE for taking the time to share such wonderful insights with me about leadership, rugby and their interconnectedness. I am forever grateful. 

From the left to the right: André Double – CEO&founder, LYIS; Grant Fox – MBE, CEO, Monstavision; Jason Cox – CEO, TIC Recruitment 

LYIS is proud to partner with TIC Recruitment

If you are considering becoming an International School Principal, then why not sign up for our course in January – ‘Becoming an International School Principal’.

In next week’s Leading Your International School Principal’s Blog,  David Ingram – Founding Head of College, Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi. He previously worked at Tanglin Trust School in Singapore, Kellett School in Hong Kong and The Alice Smith School in Kuala Lumpur, writes about ‘Wellbeing for Staff‘.

Leading Your International School wishes all of our readers and followers a warm Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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