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OCT 13, 2015

What makes a winning team? Lessons from the Rugby World Cup.

Author Yoshito Hori

On September 19, the Japanese stunned the world by beating South Africa in their first game in the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. The BBC described the victory as “a miracle,” “a bombshell” and “arguably the biggest upset in rugby union history.” Everyone praised the skill and spirit of Japan’s “Brave Blossoms.”

No wonder. South Africa was a two-time world champion that had only lost to three nations in previous Rugby World Cups. Japan, by contrast, had not won a match in the tournament for 21 years!

I think there are four reasons why the Japan team performed with such world-beating brilliance.

1. A global team

The Japanese team included six non-Japanese players from a variety of nations. That’s 40% of the total.

2. World-class leaders

The Japanese coach, Eddie Jones, is an Australian. He coached the Australian national team from 2001-2005 and worked in both Japan (at club level) and in South Africa (as assistant coach) before he took over the Japan national side in 2012. The team captain, Michael Leitch, is a New Zealander of Fijian stock. (He became a Japanese citizen in 2013.)

3. A diversity of skillsets

Japan was traditionally strong in the maul (an extempore scrum) and had plenty of speed. Bringing in foreign players added POWER, one area where Japan was weak. Combining Japan’s native strengths with new strengths imported from abroad has enabled the team to deploy a greater variety of tactics.

4. International battleground experience

The Japan team used to do most of its practicing in Japan. Now, by actively taking part in international competitions like the Asian Five Nations and the Pacific Nations Cup, the team has got used to facing top-notch foreign competition on a regular basis.

…Okay, so what relevance does this have to the world of business and LinkedIn?

One of the rallying cries of the Japanese government in the late 19th century, when the country was modernizing rapidly, was wakonyosai: “The combining of Japanese spirit with Western know-how.

I think the phrase is in need of updating: Japan’s rugby team improved not just by combining Japanese spirit and Western (or foreign) know-how, but also by utilizing foreign leaders, foreign manpower and by actively building up experience on international battlegrounds.

I believe that the same changes that supercharged Japanese rugby are now taking place in Japanese corporates and, by extension, Japanese society.

Take foreign manpower. Although Japan is notorious for blocking immigration, ever-increasing numbers of non-Japanese are coming into the country without any serious debate on immigration needing to take place. The business school I run is a good example of the phenomenon: we have students from over 40 countries doing English- and Japanese-language MBAs, plus nine nationalities on the school staff. Recently, I visited the office of a well-known architect in Tokyo: fully one-third of his employees are non-Japanese, he said. That’s not quite the 40% of the rugby team, but it’s well on the way! Japanese companies are actively importing global manpower and all the diverse skills they bring with them.

Foreign leaders have been coming into Japan for a while. Corporate turnaround legend Carlos Ghosn has been in the driving seat at carmaker Nissan since the turn of the century. More recently, Japan’s biggest drugs company, Takeda Pharmaceutical, made Frenchman Christophe Weber CEO in April 2015.

Japanese businesspeople are also recognizing the need to hone their business skills on international battlegrounds. My company has a venture capital arm as well as a business school. As a result, I get to see some of the hottest new companies in Japan from very close up. One trend I’ve noticed is for young Japanese CEOs to deliberately base themselves outside Japan, whether in Hong Kong or Singapore (to keep in touch with Greater China and ASEAN), or in San Francisco (to be closer to Silicon Valley). Japanese business leaders know that the only playing field for globally competitive business is…the globe.

So it’s not just about the national rugby team.

Many, many Japanese institutions—from startups to big corporations, from creative studios to business schools—are working hard to become better organizations, bringing in global leaders, global manpower and a global mindset to turn themselves into global winners.

That’s why, after sports, it’s in business that I’m expecting Japan to unleash its next “miracle” or “bombshell.”