Saturday, March 31, 2018

Australian Cricket - Lessons for Corporate Cultures

Australian cricket is probably in its worst crisis today thanks to the ball tampering incident in the recent Test match against South Africa. Australia losing the Test was not as big as what they lost here - credibility and respect that they had earned as fighting and tough cricketers over the years. Now they can wear this new label of bullies and cheats and on occasion, self righteous cry babies.

How is it any different from what we see going on all around - politicians and heads of state who do not apologise for their wrong doings ever (Smith at least had the decency to own up) or corporate houses that keep their customers in the dark while they manipulate and misuse their trust like many recent exposes show? Not very different except for the fact that the Aussies apologised and owned up but again (would they have owned up if the video footage was not so damning? I am not sure.) What shocked everyone was that the leadership of the team knew about it. Which means that pretty much everyone in the team knew about it. The technicalities do not matter - the team cheated and everyone can take their fair share of the blame. The question that one must ask is this - how did it come to this? Be it in politics, corporates or cricket - what went wrong?

The Context - School Cricket vs Test Cricket
Let's put this in context. Let's relook at those visuals of how the Australian team cheated by using hard plastic/ tape (where is that piece of evidence now? why is everyone coy about what it really was now?) to alter the condition of the ball to give their bowlers an advantage. A player takes something out of his pocket and does something to the ball surreptitiously. When this is caught on camera, word is sent from the dressing room to the player (which means the dressing room knew). The main accused slips the evidence into his underwear to conceal it (all under the eye of the camera) and act innocent until the umpires ask them. Then they lie blatantly by showing some other object. If this was your son's school team, would you be okay with this? Most would say no primarily because something is wrong if a team is cheating en masse and you don't want your child to be exposed to stuff like that. There's something seriously wrong with that team, its management, its thought process.

It's the Culture Mate
What is wrong with the team is pretty much its culture. Cultures are built on values that the team values most. These values show in its behavior - these teams eat, drink and breathe this behavior. Any transgression is non negotiable because these values are seriously valued. At best we have a minor member or a new member flouting the values - but in a team where the culture is well set - no one flouts the values. Why? Because the seniors embody these values in all that they do and the top leadership exemplifies this through their actions and behavior and everyone follows it.

So what culture and values were the Aussies displaying through their actions? That they will value a win more than anything else - even if it means that they will cheat like school children. They forgot that in that one act they smeared not just themselves, but their teams, their families, their schools, their countries and the game. Think Ben Johnson, Lance Armstrong, Mike Tyson, Trevor Chappell and what their name brings up. Not respect as champions surely.

The culture of the team comes largely from its skipper who is a critical part of enforcing it through his behavior. But in such cases it also comes from other wise heads behind the team organisation. If there is dishonesty in the team, the entire hierarchy is to blame. There is dishonesty in the entire hierarchy. How else would one explain why someone as susceptible as Smith and Warner were entrusted with leadership - people to whom winning had become so big that that threw everything away to win, even if it meant cheating. And these leaders, the coaches and support team have all been chosen by people whose values are now under question. Anyone who tolerates such thought is guilty, definitely those who promote it are guiltier. Similarly those who elect such mavericks who speak something and do something else, who have no qualms about blatantly lying to stay in power or protect their profits are as much to blame as the guilty parties. And we have these cultures all over. In companies surely where dishonesty and lack of transparency, nepotism and you-cover-my-back-and-I-will-cover-yours exists big time. It's about us, and all else can take a hike. Why do you need any patronage?

Blame It On The Aggressive Brand of Cricket
Many blame it on the brand of cricket they are playing. We are playing an aggressive brand of cricket - taken to mean that you are allowed to sledge mothers, sisters, wives and families in the ground (but when someone says it back they hurt deeply), bring race and colour and everything else to mess with a player whom they cannot handle on the field. Play aggressively means to show aggression on the field with skill, with courage, with resilience with guts. Not with your foul mouth.

If Australia thought they were building a great culture by sledging they ought to have been told that they were barking up the wrong tree. Clearly winning was more to them than just playing the game - this was also about demeaning the other person. They lost half the battle there with thoughts and words and now with their actions. Whatever we do, we have to win. That is not the spirit of the game certainly.

But then Governments are doing it. Companies are doing it. Innocent until proved guilty.

How Do We Set It Right
Firstly, is this something we as the paying public of cricket value? Is fair play, honesty, right spirit something we all value? If we do, then any infringement on it must not be tolerated. The action must be swift and decisive - in cricket, orporates or politics. I am surprised that Smith and Bancroft and Warner were on the field after the incident. It shows that as far as they are concerned, it is something that they can sort out officially and legally - like governments and companies do. There is no penitence or remorse. We got caught - so what's the big deal? Australia should have conceded the match - after all they cheated - or even played with 8 - minus Bancroft, Smith and Warner. If I was the coach of a team caught cheating like this I would have instantly conceded. But here we have a coach who appears complicit (and if he is not, what is he doing enjoying a vacation?) Maybe the referee should have done it then. Awarded the game to the opposition - Australia has already conceded the game by its actions. The individual punishments could come later. Not one match certainly but enough for Smith to realise the enormous damage he had done in a position of responsibility. This shatters the illusions of many on whom the world depends to maintain that balance.

What happens to a leader of a company or a country who admits to cheating after he is caught? A corporate head? It is not funny that we see this rot everywhere. Most times they get away easy because the enforcers depend on these individuals more than the individuals depending on the enforcers. Which is why they get away repeatedly.

Decisions Must Take Long term ViewIt's time everyone in the game woke up in all spheres. Tags of 'gentleman's game' and 'fair play' for cricket are a joke now. Make decisions that are not weighed by commercial gains or losses because in the longer term your losses will be much bigger than what you save now. Act right, act swiftly and strongly and show that there is no place for cheats and dishonesty at this level. If you do not reverse this culture, all we will have is a bunch of dishonest teams trying to outdo one another in cheating. Choose the right leaders who have their heads in the right place. Judge them by their actions consistently over a period of time. They will set it right.

It is a label that Steve Smith and his team has to carry for life. Not just his team but Cricket Australia will have to take a hard look at how it has built this culture. The Aussie team consistently flouts the spirit of the game. On top of flouting the spirit with sledging and aggressive behavior, they crib like babies when confronted with oppositions who do not back off. If ever there was an shred of respect for Australian cricket, it is all gone now. And they have themselves to blame for letting it slip to this stage and for entrusting their leadership to people with such dubious characters.

If I were an IPL franchisee, I would think twice about carrying such players on my team. I am not surprised at their weak responses. It's the leadership everywhere and what they encourage which is what brings such behavior on. In a short while we will see Smith and Warner showing what they are made of to our audiences, to kids. They will shoot ads and sell stuff to us. They will spout some well versed lines and continue to behave like this. And such behavior defines our culture. The sad part is that they do not come out openly and say what they value - winning at any cost, power at any cost. They cheat under the guise of trying to uphold truth and fair play. They cheat even there.

It's a familiar story in companies, in society. It all goes back to the leadership. The culture. The values. It's time to stop being so blindly greedy.

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