Lessons in Leadership From The Lofty Pinetree

This week, Colin "Pinetree" Meads, one of New Zealand's rugby greats, died, aged 81.

I'll never forget the first time I heard his name. I was about six years old, sitting in the lounge with my family watching an All Blacks game on our black and white TV. As the game progressed, it seemed the All Blacks weren't doing so great. At least, that's what my six-year-old mind made of it, given the almighty cursing and yelling at the TV from my brothers. In the next moment, I heard my usually calm and mild-mannered Dad shout, "Pinetree wouldn’t have lost possession in that line out!" (Meads had retired a few years earlier, and my Dad was obviously feeling the pain of his absence).

I was stunned that Dad's admiration for this 'Pinetree person' could get him into such an animated lather.


Who WAS this guy?!?!

Fast forward 40 years and I (along with the majority of our nation and the rugby world) now TOTALLY get why he engendered such awe in the members of my family and many other New Zealand families.

We tend to remember Meads as the rugby legend he was, but he also possessed a number of notable leadership traits, ones I think are sometimes overlooked in the modern world.

Here are a few first-rate leadership traits that Meads personified and which you could do worse than emulate:

1/ He modelled what he expected of others on the team. On the field, Meads played hard and he played to win. He gave it his all. He's quoted as having said, "If you come off the field and feel you haven't done enough, you've let the side down." He was all about fronting up and getting the job done. He was not only physically tough, he was mentally tough.

Leadership takeout? Lead by example. Don't ask of others what you're not willing to do yourself. Great leadership takes effort, hard work, and passion. It also starts with modelling what "success" looks like.

2/ He was humble and unassuming. Despite being knighted, he insisted on just on being addressed as Colin: "Just Colin, none of that other rubbish," he was reputed to say. He'd still turn up to local kids’ rugby games in Te Kuiti long after he became a famous All Black and seemed a bit bemused by and uncomfortable with all the fuss that surrounded him saying, "I was just a member of the team". Just check out the recording of the 1988 episode of Television New Zealand’s “This is Your Life” to see Meads’ humility in action. He was much more concerned with the team than his own ego.

Leadership takeout? Be humble. Just because you have a title or the honour of holding an office or a revered position, don't let it go to your head or make you think you're more important than the people you lead. Great leadership is much more about the "we" and far less about the "I”.

3/ Meads called it as he saw it. He spoke plainly and wasn't afraid to call out lacklustre performance if he thought it was warranted. In one famous example of this, after the 1995 French test disgrace, Meads delivered a scolding to the All Blacks about their performance. It seemed that plain talking was just the ticket. The players never forgot what he said and delivered a stunning victory in the second test. Meads didn't shirk from the tough but necessary conversations. He was uncompromising.

Leadership takeout? Don't avoid confronting non-performance head on. Don't dance around the mulberry bush or soft soap it or be too subtle. Meads cared enormously for the players and that showed. But he didn't shy away from the "facing reality" conversation that’s needed if you're a leader.

4/ Meads knew that if you had a leadership role which afforded you a voice, you should use that voice for the greater good. He was all about serving his community. His daughter Rhonda Wilcox said, "The fact that he's done as much public speaking as he has, is a testament to his drive to do good by being famous. He thinks if you've made a name for yourself you should give something back. He'd travel for months at night selling raffles for the IHC. From that he became the public speaker he is, because he was a shy country boy."

Leadership takeout? At its core, leadership is about serving others. Use your position of influence or your strengths to do good in this world and for your community. Give back - in whatever shape or form that is authentic to you. Make no mistake, great leadership is about giving, not getting.

Like all great leaders Meads wasn't perfect, he had weaknesses, he was flawed. But there's no doubt that Pinetree was not only one of the greatest rugby players ever seen, he also towered above many of his contemporaries as a leader.

And now, I can totally understand why my Dad passionately recalled the example of his hero in a moment of frustration. Once you’ve been inspired by a great leader it’s hard to accept anything less. [Main image: Rugby Union Tour, Barbarians v New Zealand, December 1967. Colin Meads (third right) turns to feed his backs after winning the line-out ball. Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images]

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