Personal growth for founders: draw a narrative arc from impossible to possible.

Only eight men have ever experienced what it is to lead their team to receive the William Webb Ellis trophy as winners of the rugby world cup – less than the twelve men who have stood on the moon. Siya Kolisi is the eighth after he led South Africa to 2019’s 32-12 final victory over England. Kolisi follows fellow countryman Francois Pienaar and John Smit, David Kirk, and Richie McCaw (both New Zealand), Nick Farr-Jones and John Eales (Australia), and of course, Martin Johnson (England).

South Africa’s first world cup victory under Francois Pienaar in 1995 saw Nelson Mandela alongside him in his own green number six jersey, in what became an iconic sporting image. When Smit’s team beat England in the 2007 final, the 16-year-old Kolisi was watching it in a township tavern – there was no television at home.

That Kolisi has made it this far is a story of stoicism and self-belief, setting high expectations for himself to change his circumstances. Born to teenage parents in the poor township of Zwide on the Eastern Cape, he was brought up by his grandmother. Bed was a pile of cushions on the living-room floor. Rugby was on dirt fields. When he went to his first provincial trials he played in boxer shorts, because he had no other kit.

Rugby is in his family, his father Fezakel was a centre, his grandfather a player of pace too. Kolisi began playing rugby at school aged seven, a small but mobile flanker, good with the ball in hand, learning to be smarter than the stronger kids around him. When a growth spurt kicked in and he got bigger, there was power to go with the finesse.

He signed up for his local club in the township, African Bombers. Five years later his talent was spotted by Andrew Hayidakis, a coach at one of South Africa’s most prestigious rugby schools, Grey High, and offered a bursary. He didn’t speak a word of English when he first arrived but did a language exchange with one of his classmates, Nicholas Holton teaching him English and Kolisi teaching Holton Xhosa. The two are still firm friends – Kolisi’s son is named after him, and Holton was best man at his wedding.

Kolisi progressed through the rugby ranks to Western Province and Super Rugby side the Stormers, before making his international debut against Scotland in 2013. He was named vice-captain for the Springboks in 2017 and in 2018, he became the Springboks’ first black captain in its 126-year history. The backrow suffered a partial tear of his anterior cruciate ligament in April, but he’s now back to full fitness.

But his impact is far greater than simply what he does on the pitch because of all that has come before. For all the iconography of 1995, the wider effect of the Pienaar-Mandela relationship faded. When the Springboks triumphed in Johannesburg twenty-eight years ago there was just one black player, Chester Williams, in the starting team. By the time of their second World Cup in 2007, there were still only two.

In the starting XV that beat England in 2019, there were six black players: wingers Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi, centre Lukhanyo Am, prop Tendai Mtawarira, hooker Bongi Mbonambi, and Kolisi. Of Rassie Erasmus’s squad of thirty-one, eleven were black. Coach Jacques Nienaber’s 2023 squad contains thirteen in the thirty-three, and some truly great players like Manie Libook, Cheslin Kolbe and Kolisi, alongside due Toit, Etzebeth – back for the next game versus Ireland – Marx (sadly out of the tournament) and Faf de Klerk. Handre Pollard has returned to the squad just this week. 

Kolisi stands as a critical link between the past and future and stands as a beacon of progress post Mandela. He was born on 16 June 1991, one day before the repeal of the brutal apartheid laws that enforced discrimination against black people in every aspect of their lives. Separate land. Separate public transport. Separate schools.

And so Kolisi carries that weight on his shoulders. Dreams and messy pasts, old heroes, and deep-rooted struggles. Only a game, but so much more too. Ghosts all around him, a new future ahead. Strength through unity was the motto the Springboks have adopted this tournament, both as a squad and as a varied group of South Africans.

Kolisi is acutely aware of how much his life has changed, saying: My first goal was to get a meal at the end of the day. Now I set much higher goals. I want to be one of the best players in the Springbok team and one of the best players in the world.

Kolisi not only makes you wish more sportsmen used their profile for greater things but also forces you to question your own life and achievements. How can you better yourself?  To achieve like Siya Kolisi, you need to raise the bar – not just a little, but a lot. You need to raise the bar on the time and effort you put in. You need to raise the bar on your goals. And most importantly, you need to raise the bar on what you expect from yourself.

For many of us, if we sat to think for a brief moment of the things we desired to achieve, once accomplished we may proclaim we have reached success given that success is in the eye of the beholder. However, although success may look different to each person, how can we reach peak performance similar to the likes of Kolisi, astronauts, Olympic champions, and Nobel laureates?

The irony is, you’re probably making things way too complicated and yet setting your sights way too low. If you want big things out of life, as Kolisi has shown, you have to set your sights high, set big goals, and keep it simple.

Here are six steps to accomplishing that that I think we can take from Kolisi and instil in ourselves to steer our ambition to achieve the biggest of our goals. 

1. Explore your not-enough story Low expectations stem from the inner belief that we are not able to go higher. When we live in this place, we are never truly living in the moment of our lives, we’re living in regret from what we are not, and fear that we may never be. You can start chipping away at this false belief by realising that this is not what it needs to be. Who said you’re not able to achieve this? Whose story is this?

Identify what you are passionate about. For me, this is the first step in optimising success as it encourages you to continue when things got tough, to lead you back to either things that you are extremely good at, or no matter how hard you tried, things you couldn’t leave alone. These passions cultivated intrinsic motivation.

2. Have faith in yourself Having reframed your own starting point, you have to believe that what you’re doing is for a reason. Once you find that single purpose, it will give you faith in your ability to make the right choices and set your expectations. Kolisi didn’t sit there wondering ‘What if?’ or watching other people, get out there and did his stuff, getting to places where he met other enterprising and ambitious rugby players and exposed himself to new opportunities and the right environment.

Set a plan to be consistent. High achievers leverage the things in their ability to control –their responses to circumstances – and don’t get hung up on the things they have no control over. With this continuously renewed perspective, high achievers continue to view themselves and their challenges positively. The question for these achievers becomes not if they will overcome the challenge, as they know that they will, instead they focus on how they will overcome the challenge.

3. No more low expectations Studies show that parents who have high expectations for their children raise children who are more likely to succeed. The same can be said of yourself: if we have high expectations for ourselves, we are more likely to rise to them.

Most of us have low expectations of ourselves. Maybe you’ve lowered yours to avoid disappointment or a sense of failure when you don’t meet your goals. Perhaps you feel you aren’t worthy of big aspirations, so you shrink them to a size you believe you deserve. Look back at Kolisi’s story, do you think he set low hurdles for himself?

This is different from your ‘not enough story’, it’s about having a growth mindset. Water your roots, build from a strong foundation, seek and develop mastery of basic practices that are compounded together, and then stretch. Set the bar high, hold the vision and high expectations, push yourself at every opportunity. Enjoy the compounding effects of small wins rather than relying on the sweeping momentum often sought by larger wins. Larger wins are often a combination of smaller wins that have occurred over years if not decades.

4. Focus on being the best With momentum on your expectations, you need to focus on being better than anyone else. You may need to study and work at it for a few years, but stick with it, you’ll improve your craft, building better techniques, and delivering better outcomes. If you’re smart and savvy, you’ll rise above the pack and beat the competition. What’s your personal best? Expect to push higher and reach it. If you don’t, no one else will, and you’ll continue to achieve only mediocre results.

Kolisi has pushed himself for years, with a commitment to learning that creates opportunities to connect the dots between experiences that are both familiar and abstract. This drives continuous improvement but also a process for identifying blind spots or determining when best to pivot.  Introspective conversation and reflection enables consistent application of these learning principles.

5. Notes to self When you set expectations for yourself, you will rise to them, but ‘note to self’ helps, reminding yourself and reflecting on success to date, and work to be done. Because you believe in yourself, you’ll be strong. You’ll face your challenges that inevitably befall any great pursuit, but you’ll persevere. nbsp;So, what about you? What expectations will you have for yourself going forward? What do you think Kolisi said to himself, back when he was just starting out in his rugby career?

What you expect of yourself determines what you do with yourself. The only person that determines what you do with your life is you; you can make it count and you can make a difference. From experience, I can say that it takes time. However, in the long run when you look back at where you are right now things will be different. And they will be shaped by what you expect of yourself today.

6. Practise self-compassion and remember to rest Self-care can work wonders and motivating yourself with kindness rather than criticism will change your mindset. Learn from mistakes and make changes to move forward. It’s also important to factor in time to relax and recharge. Indeed, you may get more done, a rested body and mind will help you when approaching the next step.

As Leonardo da Vinci said Art is never finished, only abandoned. I know from experience the difficulty of saying, I need to let it go now, it’s good enough! The perfectionist in me shouts or whispers It can be a little bit better. However, keep setting expectations of yourself, enjoy the success, and see where the journey takes you.

Kolisi‘s story captures the hearts and minds of people, and his rise to prominence is a testament to the power of resilience, courage, and perseverance. His remarkable journey from humble beginnings to becoming a world-renowned rugby player and leader is nothing short of inspiring.

The message from Kolisi is simple: believe in yourself, even when others doubt you. Stay true to your values, work hard, and never lose sight of your goals. With determination and resilience, you can achieve the impossible. Our expectations for ourselves directly impact our future performance.

Draw a narrative arc from impossible to possible. I think that’s what made Siya Kolisi a world champion in the 2019 final. He looked to the horizon, had the art of the possible as a motivator, and set his expectations high. He put his heart and soul into getting there. He’s made it, but I expect there is more to come from him in the games ahead in the 2023 tournament, and beyond.

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