Springboks / 5 November 2019, 5:30pm / mark keohane, mike greenaway
Siya Kolisi has just captained his country to glory in the World Cup final. What is it that makes the Springbok captain such an exceptional leader of men?
Kolisi’s story makes for a bestseller because it allows every child to dream that anything is possible, but it has been his humility in telling the story that screams about the authenticity of South Africa’s third World Cup-winning captain.
Kolisi’s calmness has always been an overwhelming part of his professional make-up. He leads through work ethic and with a seeming serenity. From where I sit when reporting on and writing about the Boks and Kolisi, I don’t see a leader who rules by fear or by unchallenged and misguidedly challenged emotion. I have always been comforted in knowing his leadership is based on action more than words.
Kolisi has always been a very good rugby player and leader of teams, but it needed a coach, in Rassie Erasmus, to entrust him with the captain’s armband.
And by entrust, I mean a coach who always speaks about the player’s ability more than he speaks simply of captaincy.
Erasmus, when he appointed Kolisi, said what had encouraged him was that Kolisi, throughout his professional career, had not changed his character. Erasmus had worked with a young Kolisi at Western Province and the Stormers. What he found 18 months ago, when taking charge of the Boks, was an evolved version of the young Kolisi.
He found a player who was respectful of the game, his teammates and the opposition and he found a young man who was significantly improved as a rugby player.
Kolisi’s first inclination is to credit Erasmus, the leadership group within the Boks and his teammates, but when you speak to them, they have no hesitation in hailing their captain.
Kolisi is a captain who speaks to an entire team and he is also a captain who speaks to an entire South African nation. He has successfully led South African rugby to the promised land, 24 years after the late Nelson Mandela pointed in the direction of this promised land.
The best leaders have that priceless combination of humility and natural strength of character, and Kolisi has heaps of both. He at times comes across almost as a reluctant leader, going about the business of captaining the Boks with intuition and natural feel. There is nothing demonstrative about Kolisi, whose leadership is inclusive and his teammates enjoy his honesty and quite manner. He doesn’t have the need to speak often and that means that when he does speak, people listen. The exceptional closeness of the Springboks comes from the captain driving the team culture - his motto for the World Cup was “together anything is possible” and boy did that come to fruition.
For a man who is just 28, Kolisi has striking emotional maturity, doubtless because of the difficult circumstances of his upbringing in impoverished Zwide township. His mother died when he was 15 and he was brought up by his grandmother. Kolisi is open about his humble roots and the fact that he is a self-made man on top of the sporting world is truly inspirational, not only for his teammates but for all South Africans. After the World Cup final, an English presenter asked him if as a child he had dreamed of holding aloft the Webb Ellis Cup. Kolkisi answered from the heart: “When I was a kid all I was thinking about was when I was getting my next meal.” I thought that was an exceptional answer and one that showcased his openness and honesty.
But Kolisi’s strongest attribute as captain is that he is a brilliant athlete who leads by example. When Kolisi is on the charge, it is inspirational, and where he goes, his teammates follow.