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October 1, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Sir John Kirwan? LOL JK

Sport is an interesting context in which to examine the dynamics of power. It is reflected in the celebrity of its players, the charisma of its leaders, the corporate sponsorship and the taxpayer-funded World Cup mania. This year—former All Black Sir John Kirwan—no stranger to the corridors of power in international sport, has returned to the spotlight with his appointment as head coach of the Blues Super Rugby franchise. Even our Prime Minister jokingly refers to himself as ‘The Other JK’ in reference to the man’s high profile. 



You might know him from his depression ad campaign, if not his illustrious playing career or his time coaching Italy or Japan. Heck, maybe you know him for his two seasons playing for the Warriors. If not, search for ‘John Kirwan try’ on Youtube and prepare to see some serious footy.

I sat down with Sir John—JK as he prefers to be known—at a café near his new home in Auckland’s Mission Bay. Since taking on the Blues job he’s had to make the move back to his hometown from his wife’s native Italy. But it’s a decent jump from South Auckland, where he grew up, and which still shows in his frank, no-nonsense and above all genuine manner. He has obviously given a lot of thought to the subject of power—which is understandable given the authoritative nature of a coach’s role.

“Being a dictator is very difficult, you get a whole lot of people around you who say yes you get what you want, you don’t get confrontation. But when you start empowering people, they will confront you. It’s a good thing.”

For Kirwan, power is a lot more diverse than telling people what to do. It comes in many forms: there is power over a few people, power over many, but as he explains, “the basic sense of power comes from an incredible self-belief … you think you have that power, but actually, it comes internally.Then, you have what you do with that power.”

Coaching overseas and at home has revealed a lot about the different ways in which rugby organisations operate.“Overseas you totally wield your power.You totally control people’s lives and use that. In NZ we communicate, negotiate, facilitate. In Italy you get the sack—see ya, not performing.”

“You have to be very careful with rugby in Europe on the president that you get. He might be like the Toulon manager who’s in the coaching box, but he’s also spending 20 million euros a year. What do you say to that? Do you say no? We don’t understand that, but French and Italians just get on with it. In rugby over there, who has the money has the power.”

Kirwan is keen to reinforce the idea that in order to wield it successfully, a person in power must have a “philosophy of power”. What may seem like a clumsy exercise in winning a bet over who can use the word ‘power’ the most times in an interview is actually an explanation of a fundamental principle—power is how you use it. Kirwan’s chosen use for it is not dictatorship—though he frankly admits that it was his style while coaching in Japan—but prefers a philosophy of empowerment:“I think the most important thing is not to fall in love with power, and move it to empower, which is really hard.”

“To see someone take control of their own self and what they’re doing. And especially in sport, I think in sport it’s a huge responsibility to make sure that that person pops out the other end empowered in many things, in sport, in their self control, how they enter society.”

And it’s more than a platitude. Kirwan sees his philosophy of empowerment as a tool for getting the most out of his players, especially in a professional era where the game is a career and players are involved for the majority of their working lives.

“Sometimes we can get selfish and just make them great rugby players, but if you want to have longevity you’ve got to really empower them to challenge, grow, get better.Youth brings you passion, then about 24, 25, you start saying this is getting tough. So how do you start doing things and recreating that passion?”

Kirwan apologises for having to take a phone call.As it happens, it was regarding the departure of All Black Tony Woodcock, a long-time franchise player, to the Highlanders—a perfectly timed example of exactly what we had been discussing.

“Tony Woodcock wants to leave the Blues, because he’s bored. What do I do, let him go? His choice, we wanted to keep him,

but I understand. I don’t agree with him but… He’s bored, he wants mental change and he’s gone.With my power as coach if I’m empowering someone and he comes and says that to me, what do I have to say? Not that it was me, with him, but if you empower someone to be then you’ve got to accept the result.”

After all, it’s a result that has many rugby pundits looking at the Blues’ high-stakes 2013 season with interest. It’s a big one for the franchise, who have come off one of their most disappointing years in Super Rugby history, with fans looking to Kirwan and special advisor Sir Graham Henry for the solution. But working with the renowned ex-All Blacks coach just another part of his philosophy.

“People said to me ‘what about Graham Henry, are you worried about that?’ so what they’re worried about is a conflict of powers, who’s really going to be in charge? As long as the team wins I don’t care. Now I’ll have to show a certain intelligence to make sure that I’m in charge but does it really matter if the team wins? Might matter to my ego, might matter to perception, might matter to my career, but if my end goal is [empowerment] then I might have to give, or take, I haven’t come across that situation but I can understand it, plan for it, so when it arrives, I can either confront, or I say, no he’s actually better than me I’ll empower him to do that.”

Kirwan also identifies a power in influence.That’s the kind held by the players themselves:“Dan Carter puts on a pair of red boots, every kid from 8 to 15 goes out to buy a pair of red boots.” He mentions the captain and senior players in particular.“They have the power to lead.That, depending on how good they are, leads
to influence. I’m sure whatever happens with Steve Hansen is in consultation with Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, for example, because they have shown that their leadership influence enough to know that if you don’t have them on side then you aren’t going far.”

In comparing a rugby franchise to a business, Kirwan roughly equates the position of a coach with that of “general manager, maybe not CEO because there’s a rung above us.” He’s tasked with a variety of jobs, from the obvious ones of preparing his players for the season and selection, to the more diverse, like media strategies and budgeting. Even with all that in the air, he still brings it down to fundamentals.

“I think that to empower people to be great is where leadership is. Do you remember Barack Obama’s speech? ‘Yes we can.’ I don’t know how many times he said it in his speech, but it empowered a nation to believe they could. Now, [the] negative side of that—I hope he gets re-elected, but I think a lot of the country got disillusioned because they went out and tried and he didn’t [succeed], you know?”

While a rugby coach may not be ‘leader of the free world’, if he fails to deliver as coach of the Blues, Kirwan knows that he will be “out of there”.There is more than enough pressure resting on his philosophy. He jokingly comes back to his dictatorship model: “you will do as I say or else I’ll shoot you—but you’ve still got to shoot them.”

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