When I began this blog five years ago one of my first entries was on a book about how an international rugby match was used by Nelson Mandela to bring black and white South Africans together. The book was Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. A few year later Clint Eastwood produced and directed the movie Invictus that was based on the true story. Matt Damon played the role of Francois Pienaar, the inspirational captain of the Springboks, South Africa’s national team. This past week Mr. Pienaar was in Kansas City to give a speech and my local rugby club had the opportunity to meet him.
The image of Francois Pienaar shaking hands with Nelson Mandela as the South African captain was presented with the Webb Ellis trophy at the 1995 World Cup at Ellis Park transcends sport and time. A generation of rugby players and fans from that bygone amateur era look back on that World Cup in awe of the impact it has had on the social and racial integration in South Africa and around the world. Twenty years later a new generation of athletes from the Kansas City Blues had the unique opportunity to hear Pienaar re-live the story of the Springbok’s 1995 Cup win – and the extraordinary relationship he shared with Mandela – that helped unite post-apartheid South Africa through the boundless power of character, perseverance, and forgiveness. Invited to participate in an exclusive event for a local chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) that featured Pienaar as the keynote speaker on April 16th, the Blues were the early entertainment as they held a closed training session and exhibition on the pitch of Sporting Park in Kansas City during the YPO’s sideline cocktail reception for its local chapter Members. The Blues players and staff then had the honor to join the audience as guests during the former South African captain’s candid and inspiring address.
Standing at a podium on the field of the MLS’s Sporting Kansas City – upgraded with international rugby posts for the event – Pienaar spoke about his career and his friendship with Mandela. In the context of the parallels of sport and business, he shared his insights on the virtues of leadership, and the lessons that playing a game like rugby can impart on those who commit everything they have to an endeavor. The Members of YPO are peers who share in common the achievement of success at an early age (chief executives and business leaders younger than 45), a commitment to learning as a lifelong adventure, and a desire to connect authentically in an environment of trust and confidentiality. Drawing on the Members’ highly competitive nature as successful business leaders, Pienaar quoted Theodore Roosevelt’s famous lines from The Critic, sharing that “the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” Closing in on the culmination of one of the Club’s most successful years in its 49-year history, the Kansas City Blues were fortunate to be in the company of such high achievers and to take part in a tremendously uplifting event.
After his address Francois spent time on the field with the Blues, and offered supportive advice as they head into the final weeks of their regular season. With a 9-1-1 (12-1-1 overall) record in the Midwest Conference and a hold on first place, the Blues still have three league games to play but also have their sights set on something more. Pienaar urged them to put everything have into their passion for the sport, and encouraged the players to push themselves beyond their physical and psychological limits to achieve something more. While he emphasized the importance of the team throughout his address, Pienaar’s message for the Blues was that in the end, each player must decide for themselves if they’ve done all that they can to achieve their goals. Emphasizing the role that strong individual character must play in the lives of people who do great things, he closed with the words from the influential poem The Man In The Glass by Wimbrow: “You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years; And get pats on the back as you pass; But your final reward will be heartache and tears; If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.”