Book Review – Steve Hansen: The Legacy, by Gregor Paul

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Steve Hansen, The Legacy by Gregor Paul is an in depth look behind the scenes at one of the most dominant teams in sports history and the coach who made it happen. This is the story of how the New Zealand All Blacks used their victory at the 2011 Rugby World Cup as the launch pad for an incredible run of dominance that continues today.

For his part, Steve Hansen joined the All Blacks as an assistant coach in 2004, before taking over as head coach following the 2011 world cup. During his period as an assistant coach Hansen experienced both the elation of a world cup victory (2011) and humiliation of a failed campaign on home soil (2007). The 2007 campaign in particular would prove to be a formative experience in his coaching career, and also in the careers of the players who would form the senior leadership group during the 2015 world cup cycle.

Two other experiences were key in forming Hansen’s personality and therefore his coaching philosophy. His father was a publican and people were his business. The second was his initial career as a police officer. The combined effect was to provide Hansen with highly developed emotional intelligence (EQ). He was also sufficiently self aware to understand how to apply this to get the best out of his team. 

Why is this book relevant for people interested in the profession of arms? In a word: leadership. As the author points out, it is easy to dismiss Hansen’s success as the inevitable product of inheriting a world champion team with all-time great players on the roster. However, that is misleading. No other team had previously been able to win back-to-back world cups, and most of the 2011 team were unavailable in 2015 due to retirement, injury or ineligibility.

Despite this, during Hansen’s tenure (2012-2019) the All Blacks had a win rate of 89%, the highest of any coach who has overseen 15 tests or more. The All Blacks were so dominant in attack over this period that the next most high scoring team (England) only scored 60% as many tries (496 vs 301).  

Steve Hansen’s leadership philosophy was all about pushing an already great team to ever greater heights. How he did it provides leadership lessons that are widely applicable.  

In 2012 the first thing he did after securing the job of All Blacks head coach was summon the coaching staff and senior players to a meeting in Christchurch. At this meeting he presented his vision for the team. It was simple, clear and audacious, and because it was audacious it was inspiring. He then sought each individual’s personal commitment to the vision. 

The vision was for the All Blacks to become the most dominant team in the history of rugby while being a team that all of New Zealand could be proud of. 

This is recognisable to us as a command philosophy and it’s a powerful one. It may seem at first to be intangible, but as Hansen would go on to explain to his team it implies a wide range of essential tasks that must be achieved if they were ever to be considered the most dominant team in history. This includes, achieving the perfect season, winning the 2015 world cup, retaining the Bledisloe Cup, breaking the all-time winning streak, dominating the rugby championship, etc. 

Crucially, Hansen’s vision for the team also carried a key cultural aspect. If all of New Zealand were going to be proud of team they had to behave accordingly, both on and off the field. This meant that they needed to be gracious in victory and magnanimous in defeat. They also had to maintain a high moral standard off the field to avoid generating scandals. 

International rugby is a high performance physical environment and Hansen was brutally uncompromising in his pursuit of excellence and the standard to which he held the team. By bringing the leadership team into his confidence right from the start he also achieved perfect alignment of effort within the team. In particular with his captain, Richie McCaw who then set the tone for the rest of the players and held them to account. 

Time and time again throughout the book examples are given (usually by the players themselves) of how Hansen was able to deftly blend the brutal pursuit of excellence with a softer, more compassionate side to get the best out of the players individually and the team as whole. One example is that he held a core philosophy that no one should lose their place in the team due to injury until they’d had a chance to show their form upon return. As a result, injured players were able to focus on their recoveries knowing their place in the team was waiting for them on return. This resulted in better medical outcomes for the players, less recurrent injuries, greater longevity and ultimately greater team success. 

Lastly, Steve Hansen wasn’t a great coach solely because of high levels of EQ, he was also highly adept at orchestrating the various parts of the team to support the overall plan. Critically, he was able to plan and execute across multiple levels simultaneously. On a technical level, every player had individualised fitness, skills and mental health programs to maximise their performance holistically (including mental strategies to help them perform under pressure). He would also develop tactical plans for every game the All Blacks played, which the team would spend the week preceding the game rehearsing. Those game plans would themselves be nested under a campaign plan for how the team would approach each season so that the team’s performance would peak for critical games (while accepting greater risk at other times). Lastly, in conjunction with New Zealand Rugby he would form a multi year strategy for how the team would gradually build for the next world cup cycle. 

For the 2015 world cup this included convincing New Zealand Rugby to throw large amounts of money at six key senior players to keep them in New Zealand. It also involved convincing New Zealand Rugby to then accept allowing those same six players to take an extended sabbatical at some point during the four year cycle to help extend their longevity. The combined result meant that all six were motivated, fit, available and in form for the 2015 world cup. At every level Hansen had to balance the urgent needs of the present against the important needs of the future. 

While the leadership lessons highlighted in the book are widely applicable, they are particularly applicable for sub unit commanders. This is due to the size of the All Blacks squad (including coaching staff) combined with the responsibility to develop a team culture and deliver individual and group training outcomes. 

About the Author: Chris is an Associate Editor at Grounded Curiosity and a currently serving Australian Army officer. Building on a multi-discipline engineering background, his passion is technological development and PME. Chris’ work has previously appeared on Grounded Curiosity, Strategy Bridge and The Cove. Find him on Twitter.