At times, leadership for a referee can resemble that of governance. However, when it comes to such a rugged yet free-flowing sport such as rugby, the referees are first tasked with enforcing the idea that the rules are sacrosanct and any disregard of this will be met with decisive action. This requires someone with a unique character, a balancing act of sort: demanding respect and compliance of the rules on one hand but being trusted to uphold them in the other. To successfully find this balance and maintain it for over 30 years of refereeing is something special.
Jonathan Kaplan is a retired international referee, who officiated at four world cups, 70 international test matches, and 425 first-class games, over a 30 year career. The South African was at one point the most capped referee in rugby history, travelling the world over to oversee a game he loves dearly. Having played growing up he was quickly fond of the sport’s structure and dynamic. But his playing days were short-lived, finding it difficult to compete with the ‘big lads’ and not enjoying the sport’s regime and training. Following his mother’s suggestion, he tried his hand at refereeing, heading to the rugby field with a renewed vigour for the game.
After a handful of games he considered himself pretty good, but, upon reflection, he noted spending some time convincing others he ‘had what counts’ to make something of it. Continuing to referee through his undergraduate days at The University of Cape Town, Kaplan made his first-class debut in 1991 and was appointed to South Africa’s national panel of referees in 1993. It was on a fated day in 1996 he made his international debut in a match between Namibia and Zimbabwe, an event that would substantiate his passion for rugby refereeing, as an art and a practice.
JK also discussed how he developed a philosophy that shaped his refereeing style. This philosophy was based on four central principles: Flair, Judgement, Nerve & Balance. The first, Flair, focuses on bringing confidence to and imprinting his unique personality on the game. He found this would often bring the best out in people, as they would trust in his expertise and ability to manage the game. Next up is Judgement or as Kaplan put it “ the commitment to knowing right from wrong”, studying the game enough to understand the core rules as well as their in-practice nuances. This went hand-in-hand with his next principle, Nerve. This refers to making snapshot decisions in the heat of a game, sticking to your call, and maintaining your position as the neutral voice of reason. He feels that this is something you can’t necessarily teach; it is often something intrinsically nurtured within someone. And finally, JK sought Balance in everything he does, particularly during a match. This was hinged on knowing what was required for test match rugby and recognising that his style should liberate the game, ultimately creating a natural flow within each phase.
When discussing the differences in his refereeing style from his first game in charge to his 400th, he shared a couple stories. One of which includes a high-stakes Tri-Nations game in 2000 between the All Blacks and the Wallabies, which cost NZ the Bledisloe Cup. He made a call in the final minutes that awarded Australia a penalty, all but sealing the All Blacks fate and igniting a wrath of criticism and vitriol toward Kaplan. The NZ Herald’s headline the following day read ‘The moment he broke our hearts’. It was at this point he truly realised the responsibility held by officials at the top level and the widespread implications for the calls they made.
For Jonathan, developing this archetype established his own identity on the pitch. But it took time and a vested effort to be the best he could be. The practice alongside the wider commitment of sharpening his craft can easily and effectively be channelled into a business environment. As we look upon our own careers, any one of us can benefit from forging a network of principles that, if executed consistently well, will produce the best version of ourselves.
Kaplan always took enormous pride in the work he did, buying into the prestige and history of the game itself. He worked incredibly hard, immersing himself physically, mentally and emotionally, fulfilling his various professional aspirations. He reflected, at length, as to how he could make those around him better; finding a way for his own character to encourage others to put their best foot forward. These are the traits of a leader. They set the precedent for those who follow and, when implemented into one’s area of focus, can yield exceptional results. Business managers and wider leaders can look to Jonathan Kaplan’s career for both tangible guidance and spirited inspiration.