This is the talk (or most of it) that I delivered at L&T Tech Services on Leadership and Cricket.
Leadership and the Insecure Leader
My first brush with leadership was thanks to my mother. She gifted me a cricket bat when I was eight years old. Having a bat conferred instant power on me. I was unanimously elected captain of our team and all sorts of powers were given– I could bat first, could go off anytime I wanted, drop people I didn’t like from the team and could do anything I pleased – long as I had the bat.
In a similar instance, I was made a class leader because I came first in class. But that did not help in dealing with Lloyd who had rippling muscles. I sacrificed many innocent classmates to stay out of Lloyd’s wrath.
In both these situations I had no desire to lead. It was given to me and I could use it the way I wanted. In the first case I misused it to serve my interests. In the second, I misused it to survive.
People with bats. Can’t blame them. They were ‘given’ that position.
What do they do?
We all played under captains like that. Men thrust into positions. Their doubts destroyed them (and the team). Unsure. Undeserving. Harsh. They formed coteries.
When leadership is thrust on us, it comes easy. We are not prepared for it. We are blamed, so we look for others to blame. We miss the big picture. Lack of clarity, distance from team, insecurity are not good.
Serving oneself or surviving in the job are petty purposes that no one will buy into. Are his followers willingly following him? No. The moment the bat goes, they are in trouble. He is not the kind of a captain we want. He grows at the cost of his team. The team deteriorates.
How to pick leaders – Or rather, who picks them
Right through my cricketing days I always wondered how selectors chose captains. Some were chosen because they were senior, some for their pedigree. Some because they kept quiet. In fact this was always considered a great quality. They say Ravi Shastri would have led India more if he did not speak his mind so.
The guys who are picking the leaders must be secure enough too. Else we have insecure leaders promoting insecure people because it serves their interests. Funnily the only place where leaders are elected democratically is in politics where we all elect them. Most of the others in the system are selected.
But then, before we start the debate, do leaders make any difference at all? Or is it all about the team?
Two examples – Inter varsity matches
To illustrate my point let me tell you two cases. An Inter University match. Greatest side ever to have left Osmania. Captain was considered a future captain. Well educated, articulate, knew the game. But he could not hold the energies of the team. He was looking at the greater narrative already perhaps. We lost the first round. The best side to have left Osmania lost.
Six years later. The weakest side I played in for Osmania was led by a young determined captain. As seniormost member, he enlisted my support. I want you to help us win. He showed intent, purpose, vulnerability. We won. After 10 years Osmania won.
It’s not about the best side obviously. It was the captain that was the difference.
I learned then that good leaders make a significant difference to the team. My estimate is 40%. It could be higher depending on how good this person is at leading. It was not about good marks, being polite, or owning the bat.
It was all about getting the team to achieve it purpose.
How captains evolve – Take ownership to achieve the purpose
How the insecure leader evolves into a secure leader is like this. I know. I have been through that. He will feel the pain of many losses, mostly due to his own bad leadership. Having lost so often, he gets over the fear of failure.
He wants to win. Finally. (Look at all the leaders who wanted to do good in their second stints and you get what I am talking about.)
That is the turning point – the clarity of purpose and ownership of that. (Unfortunately most times you are removed from captaincy by now.)
My second captain was clear that he wanted to win. He went that extra mile to make it happen. He owned it. He owned the purpose.
Purpose – why we are here? 3 stories
I played under two three Test players who were my captains. One was A who was considered among India’s greatest captains. But in all the time I played under A I never heard him say we are out to win. Most of the time he believed that we should know since we were state level cricketers.
One particular World Cup he said, as did all other skippers, that he wanted to give his best. A safe statement to make. But what signal does that send to the team? In the times I played under A we figured out what we thought we had to do. If it fell in place we won. If not we lost.
In contrast, Steve Tikolo, skipper of the Kenya team, an associate team, said he wanted to win when questioned by the press about their goals and objectives. Kenya went to the semi final.
Another captain I played with was S. This was a young team. The first words he said was – we are here to win. I want everyone to give his best effort. That set the rules for us instantly. All effort went into high gear. There was fun but it was crystal clear what was expected of us. We went to the semi finals in Buchi Babu that year as well. Many of us got our Ranji Trophy breaks because of that performance.
It became clear that to lead well one must have a clear purpose. And then convey the purpose to the team so they know it too and can help. One cannot assume. In our assumptions we send all sorts of wrong messages to go to the team.
A leader who knows his purpose and takes ownership to achieve his purpose will go that extra mile. If I were to pick a leader I will look at 1) someone who has taken ownership for himself. Then 2) if he has taken responsibility for another.
Leadership with a sense of ownership
Understanding ownership does not come easy. To understand the pain of the leader one must experience being in the leader’s shoes. One must experience the pain of owning something. And wonder why the others are not running about with the same urgency. The secret dream of all leaders is that everyone is running about doing things and he is watching them and supporting them.
Personal leadership – the next level of leadership thought
Personal leadership is about seizing the responsibility already vested with us i.e.e expanding our roles, and maximizing it from the perspective of team good. Seize every opportunity to make a difference in the environment. Think and act like the leader even if you do not have the power. In this case - no power, but you assume complete responsibility for team performance.
Manage the energy of the team. See the difference. Only then will we become secure people. Secure leaders. We must understand that vulnerability, that space. Even as a tea boy I can make a difference. If I choose to.
As a cricketer I have experienced this personal leadership. Let me tell you a story – one that defines me. One that is about ownership. One that drove me to believe that a fast bowler can write a romantic novel.
The story of how I scored 158 as a number eight batsman.
Understanding Leadership, ownership and the process
I never experienced leadership in its true sense until I led my league team in 1992. I wanted to win the league championship for MCC. That’s when it hit me. Leadership was not about position, power or aggrandisement. It was about getting a job done.
I knew why I wanted to lead, who I wanted to lead, what I wanted to do and how. But I could not do it alone. I needed my mates to believe in the same cause with the same intensity. I needed them to play with the same intensity. I stated my purpose, set some ground rules. We won that year. Easy.
But here's the catch - when I had a younger team next year we did not win. The same tactics did not work. I needed to rebuild trust, understand the new dynamic. Not so easy.
Good leadership – in the long term
Good leadership is about bringing out the best out from everyone. Not getting the best people together and hope they will do the job. Get the stars, pamper them and they will do the job for you.
Clive Lloyd’s champion team came after the WI got thrashed around in Australia. They took individuals, worked together, had same values and made a team that won consistently over many years. Kapil Dev’s team was ordinary too.
It’s about the leader. It’s never about team and its resources. It’s about what the leader can do with what he has. The captain must believe that he can win with whatever resources he has. That he can make them outperform. If he thinks he cannot deliver, he must resign. He is not fit to be a leader. He does not want to invest time.
MSD won the T20 with a second string side. Kapil Dev did the same with a team that did not have the star power of the West Indies.
How can we make everyone feel a sense of ownership that you do as leader?
Transfer of ownership – take my responsibility, go for glory, I will take the pain.
Insecurity and security.
The first belief to have is this – everyone wants to do well. They merely need the right environment. Facilitate this and grow your team. Manage the energy around the team. Make them feel secure, yet pushed to growth. Make them feel involved in this cause. Make them feel secure. I read somewhere – how to make people die for you. There is a story about Michael Brearley and a lion tamer. Each one is different. You must invest time.
Tell them what. Figure out the how – 3 examples
We know what we want - to get the best out of everyone. How we do this is our style. Be autocratic. Be democratic. Be involved. Be detached. Examine these classic styles.
When we see Sourav Ganguly, we know that he badly wants to win. He will back his players, he will take on the world to back his players. He will inspire them by his intensity. Everyone has to play for the team. You give me your best and I will give you the world. We follow, there is growth. No second line of leaders emerging.
You see Sachin and you see someone whose level of perfection is so high that he is constantly at the others with his ideas, theories. His lack of trust and patience with the others did not grow them. His impatience did not allow them to grow and contribute. They could not deliver and consequently he could not either. Not a lack of intent – just lack of trust. Too much involvement gave too little space. Not much growth.
We look at Rahul. He will do things that put his intent beyond question. He will open the innings. He will keep wickets. He will take greater load as the captain. He will lead from the front. The sheer purity of his nobleness will inspire followers. No one can ever question his integrity and intent for the team. You follow. But he is always at a higher level. He is the one who is pulling the ship. He’s taking the load. Trust deficit.
Equal sharing of load - We are all in this together
Then you have MSD. Coming into lead at a time when India had superstars upon superstars. Sachin, Kumble, Rahul, Sourav, Laxman – how does anyone lead such a team? MSD was brilliant. I make them all feel like they are only leading. Now listen carefully, only a very secure leader can say that. With MSD it was always about the team – it was not about himself. He gave space for others to flower, he trusted them in critical moments, he backed them, took the blame. He made everyone feel equal.
He is secure in his space. He shows his vulnerability (again a feature of a secure person). He gives you authority. He gives you opportunity. He trusts you. He will support you. He will allow to make mistakes. He will not tell you how to do it, only what he wants done. He will take the blame if things don’t work out.
Such a leader has little to do except support and hold that energy. To step back, to tell what to do and not how to do, to be patient, to believe in people (and yourself) and to know that it will all work out in the end – this is all one has to do. You need to really want them to do well – as if they were your own children.
Biggest block to transferring ownership
Clearly the biggest block to transferring ownership is the owner - the leader. It is he who gets in the way. It is his ego that cannot let him let go. It is his insecurity that the others may grow bigger that stops him from transferring this ownership. Are you secure enough to let go and trust? To let others grow? To allow them to contribute?
If you as a leader grow personal leaders, of people putting up their hand, your job is easy. Facilitate that. You will do yourself, your company, society and the country a huge help.
Manage the energy
Losing teams have low energy. Find ways to challenge the team, to make things interesting. Make them believe that something good will come out of it after all. Belief is a thought. But so difficult to hold. Young MSD, long haired, wild ways, thrust with the captaincy of the team for the T20s with a young team of rookies is out to play the T20 championship. His decisions are crazy but spot on. In the first match shootout he bowls three non-bowlers – Robin Uthappa, Sehwag and another. In the final he throws all reason away and bowls Joginder Sharma. Now MSD had all stakes up – but he did not make safe decisions. He went with what he believed was right. And once he made that decision he fully trusted Sharma. Even after a wide ball, a six. I believe that it is MSD s belief in him that shifted something in Sharma’s mind.
I know about that invisible thread. There is a small story of how difficult it was to let go for me. A cricket match we played.
Inspiring leaders – they want to grow you
We can go beyond being insecure. We can go beyond wanting the right result. We can go into growing people. We can go into love. We can care for our team as children. We can make genuine connections. We can grow people by merely trusting them and believing in them. They will do all the work. I have seen the best skippers do that. They will look at you in a way that makes you feel special and you go all out to kill.
To be inspirational we need to really care. We need to be secure enough to let the others take centre stage. It’s a matter of belief. The paradox is that to be secure, you just have to be vulnerable. It’s ok to be vulnerable. And that changes it all.
All we need is patience, a capacity to learn and to deal with people genuinely. All else falls into place. Good luck.