What Japan’s Rugby Blossoms Can Teach Business Leaders

There are so few experiences that unite people like sports do. Whether you’re on the field, off the field, watching at home, or even reading about a game the next day, you’re part of a dynamic experience that pulls you into the resilience, tenacity, and beauty that comes with total head-down competition.

For me — and, arguably, for Japan — that’s never been more the case than throughout this Rugby World Cup (RWC). Japan’s national rugby team, the Brave Blossoms, had a historic run that ended in defeat to the overall RWC victors, South Africa.

During their epic journey to the quarterfinals, the Blossoms showed a level of resilience, dexterity, and ingenuity never seen before. It’s a level, I’d argue, that can teach us all something — whether we’re running the ball down the field or running a business in the face of seismic change. Here’s what I think we can learn from those Brave Blossoms:

1. Change isn’t just good business, it’s good for business

Asia is in the midst of a massive digital transformation — a transformation that naturally demands change from every corner of every industry.

With this rapid change comes a level of uncertainty anchored by a gap between present-day thinking and future potential. But as the Blossoms showed us over and over again, that uncertainty and unpredictability bring unimagined opportunity — if you play it right.

For the Blossoms, that meant stepping onto the world stage, competing against long-standing leaders, and adjusting their expectations and their approach to meet the ever-changing competitive demands.

And Japan delivered.

The Brave Blossoms were the only Asian team ever to qualify for the World Cup, and they stepped up to the challenge with total confidence and clarity. “Japan have showed what is possible,” said Robbie McRobbie, chief executive officer for the Hong Kong Rugby Union. “And while the gap between them and the rest of us is significant, it is obviously a source of great hope and inspiration.”

2. Creativity conquers all

This season the Brave Blossoms demonstrated countless traits we should all aim to emulate within our own organizations. With every match, the Japanese team showed brilliance, passion, creativity, and unrelenting commitment that took games to the next level, while catapulting the team beyond every other Asian rugby team ever. Together, the Blossoms elevated Asian rugby to new heights — and following their lead, you can do the same for your business.

This was particularly impressive given how the Blossoms stacked up to the competition, at least initially. The Japanese team lacks the physical stature of its competitors — the Blossoms are nowhere near the “largest pack size” in the World Cup. To many, the team seemed completely outmatched before the tournament even started. Rugby, after all, is a sport where size absolutely matters.

But when the Blossoms came together as a team, those physical challenges disappeared. What the Blossoms lacked in size they more than made up for in resilience, dexterity, and ingenuity — and most importantly, creativity.

These skills — and the team members’ creative attitude — translated into success game after game after game. Their style of “running rugby” — a fast, nimble, creative style of play that beat world-leading opponents — was breathtaking to watch and, as their wins proved, often impossible to beat.

By bringing creative approaches — that fast “running rugby” — to their challenge of being the smallest players in the pack, the nimble Blossoms came out ahead game after game.

Granted, that doesn’t just apply to rugby. Any business that feels overshadowed by talent, experience, or a technology stack can look to the Blossoms as a reminder to be nimble, creative, and fast, whether you’re failing fast and learning from it or accelerating your production and performance. If you do that, you’ll be a true force on your field of play.

3. Find your unique competitive advantage, and play to it

That said, it’s not enough to be creative and forward-thinking in the face of bigger, stronger, more established competitors. In today’s global marketplace, customer experiences are your company’s core differentiator and key competitive advantage. Know it and act on it.

The Blossoms did. The team played to their strengths and excelled. You can do the same. Play to your strengths and work hard to refine those strengths even if the competition seems stacked against you.

For customer experience businesses, that means being as data-driven as you are customer-centric as you are clever, creative, insightful, and innovative. Make sure the customer is at the center of every experience, keep leaning on real-time data to create personalized experiences at scale, and never stop pushing yourself to create and deliver more. If you do, you’ll be a business Blossom.

4. You don’t have to win to excel

Ultimately, the Brave Blossoms lost to South Africa — the overall Rugby World Cup winners — in the quarterfinals, but not before smashing records and redefining Japanese rugby for generations. When Japan beat Scotland, the match drew in 53.7% peak audience share, with an audience of nearly 55 million viewers. That’s more viewers than the 2002 World Cup final in Yokohama commanded. And considering Japan’s population of 127 million, that’s a truly staggering number. It was a win for the ages, even if Japan didn’t ultimately come out on top.

While the Blossoms’ run ended in the World Cup quarterfinals, this will be a season — and experience — few will forget. “The incredible run of the Brave Blossoms in the competition, and the way in which the Japanese people have welcomed the world and delivered an exceptional event, they really knocked this one out of the park and did us all proud in Asia,” says Robbie.

And without question, the Blossoms showed business leaders, innovators, and marketers how to step up and deliver. Over and over, the team demonstrated many attributes we should aspire to emulate in our own transformations. The digital revolution means our work and the broader marketing and business landscape must raise the bar again and again — like the Blossoms have done.

Likewise, we must look to affect change, to step out of our comfort zones, challenge convention, and promote collaboration, customer engagement, and big-picture strategic thinking. If we do, we can make history too. If we do, we’ll fuel an unparalleled global transformation — a transformation that’s only just begun.