Lessons in Leadership from New Zealand

by André Double

An Interview with George Konia – Coach Development Officer – Hawkes Bay Magpies, New Zealand.  

After a visit to Hawkes Bay Rugby Club, New Zealand, the name George Konia was passed to me. ‘George would be a great person to talk to about leadership’ I am told. Two days later, as George and I sit in a café near Napier to discuss school leadership and its crossovers with Rugby, I soon realise that I am in the company of an extremely humble man, deeply connected to his Maori roots. Having represented New Zealand Colts, Divisional XV, New Zealand Maori and with 6 caps for Japan, George knows a thing or two about rugby. Currently working as the Coach Development Officer at Hawkes Bay Magpies, here are George’s reflections and thoughts on rugby, leadership and their interconnectedness. 

Maori Roots

“I attended a Maori all-boys school”, George tells me. “It was tough” he adds, saying “Bullying was also commonplace”. Luckily, George tells me “I got my work ethic from my father, who would be up and out at 5-00 am every day, sheering sheep. I never wanted to let my dad down”. As we talk about the Haka and its history and traditions, I get the sense of feeling that it wasn’t always as culturally symbolic and meaningful to all of the All Blacks team and the wider public. That started to change under Graham Henry, George tells me. “Players became much more aware of what the Haka symbolised. They also became far more aware of each others’ cultural backgrounds”. He notes that such a move by the All Blacks leadership was “very brave”. Taking the time to ask what you do and the significance of why you do it, is never a wrong option. 

Time in Japan

During his time playing professional rugby in Japan, George was fortunate to learn a lot of leadership mantras that would stay with him as he moved into coaching. The first is to treat people how you would want to be treated yourself. As a coach and school leader having empathy for what you are expecting someone to do is key. An awareness of the opportunities and challenges that staff face is likely to help you support them to be the best version of themselves. Failure to grasp the key roles and responsibilities of your staff is unlikely to promote a team environment. The second he tells me, was the “incredible work ethic that was second to none”. Having the belief and mindset that most challenges can be tackled through hard work and its application are important in our international schools and the approaches of leaders who manage them. 

Dealing with Setbacks

In the entirety of his amateur and professional career, George confesses to me that he has been concussed ‘more than thirty times’. The thought sends a shiver down my spine. Such was the magnitude of his response, that I had to pause and reconfirm his words. Scans have revealed scar tissue on his brain. As a result, he has made some permanent lifestyle adjustments. He doesn’t drink alcohol, limits the amount of sugar he eats and tries to read wherever possible. Even when dealing with adversity, George draws upon a unique set of skills that require an enormous amount of self-discipline. Thankfully the game is in a much stronger position now when it comes to player welfare. Games are officiated with player safety in mind. Dealing with setbacks of non-selection, injury and the end of a career are hurdles all rugby players have to clear. Some do it better than others. As a school leader, your career may be defined by your ability to bounce back from repeated setbacks. 

Greatest Influences? 

George speaks incredibly highly of his father and the role he played in shaping and defining who he is and what he stands for. Among several of the influences on George that helped to serve his playing and now coaching career, one name stands out – Wayne Smith, the former All Blacks Assistant Coach, Crusaders Coach, Northampton Coach and World Cup-winning coach with the New Zealand Black Ferns (women’s) team. “One thing that Wayne did as well as anyone I’ve seen, is to ask questions”. These questions would often ask what was being done, and how and whether a different approach would yield different results. Several years ago, George was in a coaching seminar with Wayne Smith, Steve Hanson and Graham Henry. Suprsingingly, at the highest level of rugby and its leadership, “these coaches began to share their ideas, what they were doing and why they were doing it”. As a result, says George, “Our provinces started working much closer together to achieve our common goals. International education needn’t be the competitive circus we sometimes build it up to be. When we share better ways of doing things – especially when it comes to wellbeing – everybody wins. 

Leadership Mistakes

When George made the transition from playing to coaching he confesses to me – like a lot of school principals who have made the transition from teacher to leader “when things weren’t going right, you just want to fix them”, quickly adding “It doesn’t work”. Being solution-focused is certainly noteworthy. One of the things he learned from All-Blacks legend Wayne Smith, was to “lead players down a path of finding their own solutions”. As a school leader, you may want to ask yourself – are our staff on a path towards self-discovery? If not, what actions and decisions we can take might help them to navigate that path and get there increasingly by themselves? 

Hire Based on Character

Several rugby teams in New Zealand have progressively moved to a model of selection and player development based around character – with the understanding that the skills and knowledge to be high-performing rugby players and perhaps one day All Blacks can be developed. Our international schools themselves face several recruitment challenges presently. The temptation for the quick fix and the most senior, experienced or highest qualified candidate does not always draw the success we might anticipate. How about hiring for the character needed to develop the skills, and gain the experience and qualification that can significantly impact student outcomes? 

Personal Values & Lessons

It will come as no surprise to hear that George rates integrity and hard work as two of his strongest values – instilled by his father and countless coaches he has been influenced by. Others include innovation and finally, never forgetting to have fun along the way – a key message to take into our international schools; we are only here for a certain amount of time on this earth, so we might as well enjoy ourselves. When coaching, George tells me “You need a certain amount of structure, and coaching has to be progressive”. Ultimately, I want players to have learned something along the way”. Interestingly, George describes himself as someone who is organised, yet laid-back but ultimately someone who cares deeply about his players, colleagues and family. By getting to know the simple things such as the names of players’ partners, their children and their progress, players are more likely to respond and in his words “empty the tank for the team”. As a leader, what do you know about your staff that might make a difference to their emotional involvement and connection to what they are doing? How might you use that to the school’s advantage? 

Advice to his Former Self

When asked about what advice George would give to his former self, he told me “Ask more questions” – sound advice for any international school leader. Being the leader of questions and not answers may be a shift in everyday mindset, but when leading a team of high-performing individuals, providing them with the answers all the time is unlikely to create an innovative and thriving culture. Secondly, George notes he would “say no more often”. At times in his prior coaching career when he’d be preparing for the Provincial Rugby season, a coach at a local rugby club would contact him for support and advice. His response was always yes, without question, which would invariably mean a face-to-face meeting. This sometimes meant limiting the overall effectiveness of what he was trying to achieve in his coaching. Reflecting now, George realises that he simply didn’t have the time to fulfil every commitment. As a school leader – sometimes you do have to shut the door and get on with your role of making your school the best environment it can be. Give yourself enough time to be strategic. 

With special thanks to George Konia and Hawkes Bay Magpies Rugby Club. We wish you every success for the season ahead! 

The future belongs to you!

André Double is the CEO and founder of the Leading Your International School (LYIS) which provides Leadership, HR and Sustainability Consultancy to international schools. André’s first Leadership book ‘Leading Your International School’ is available on Amazon. His second book, ‘Starting Your International School’ written with International School Principals Gráinne O’Reilly and Chris Nash is due to be published soon. LYIS is committed to supporting leaders and educators around the world to level up school leadership. If you have a great leadership story to share or know someone who might be interested in sharing theirs, do get in touch!

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