Insight article

Friday Stories: Pass the ball

Continuing on this sports kick this week, today’s story comes as an excerpt from James Kerr’s fantastic new book Legacy, which presents leadership lessons drawn from the exceptional success of New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks. But fear not, a knowledge of or interested in rugby is not a prerequisite. This particular story illustrates how one of the best things leaders can do is simply cultivate other leaders. 

A local resident was having problems with petty crime. A gang was breaking into his car, a rather pretty Saab 900 Turbo. Every time he changed the locks, the car was broken into again. One day he decided not to lock it – and so the gang began to use the car as a toilet. In despair, he approached the local police. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ he demanded. ‘We don’t have the resources,’ the constable replied. ‘What are you going to do about it?’

Teenage Kicks was born.

A five-a-side football tournament for disaffected youth, the purpose of Teenage Kicks was simple yet powerful: to turn gangs into teams.

In a community suffering from no jobs and nothing to do, the idea was to create a structure of meaning: a sense of purpose, belonging, teamwork and, most importantly, personal responsibility. It relied on a concept of ‘Pass the Ball’, defined as ‘enabling and empowering the individual by entrusting them with responsibility for the success of the team’.

It worked like this.

The organisers took care of the venue, the referees, the equipment, the stewards and the schedule, and then set about handing over responsibility – passing the ball – to the area’s disaffected youth.

They targeted existing gang members, and those likely to fall into the gang lifestyle. The first targets were alpha males, aged between nineteen and twenty-five, who displayed qualities of natural leadership, courage, respect, and the ability to involve and motivate others.

These natural leaders were invited to become Managers – a role that resonated in a community sandwiched about halfway between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur Football Clubs. The Manager’s first responsibility was to find a Captain for their team – to pass the ball to them. And the Captain’s first responsibility? To pick a team.

And the team’s responsibility?

To turn up for every game on time. If they didn’t the team was disqualified; not just from that game, but from the whole tournament.

In this way the responsibility was passed on and caught by everyone involved.

Perhaps a dozen teams were expected to turn up on the first night. Fifty-two teams arrived on time and ready to play. Over the next four weeks no team was disqualified.

Ten years later, Teenage Kicks is still going strong.

Pass the ball.

Nailia Tasseel