“A Degree in People”: Testing leadership on the cricket pitch

It’s usually red, and weights between 5.5 and 5.75 ounces, so nearly 10% bigger than a baseball.  And it’s harder; it’s coming straight for your head, at anything up to 90 miles an hour.  It’s been deliberately aimed at you; and if this one misses you, the next one probably won’t.

For whilst in baseball a batter who gets hit by the ball will get a free pass to first base, in cricket the so-called short stuff, or “chin music”, is all part of the sport.

So you are all alone, with your bat, some flimsy gloves and hopefully a helmet, as this thing hurtles towards you – and yet we call this a team game.

Furthermore – not that you will have much chance to appreciate it at the time – but cricket is a game which embodies a spirit of fair play.  Indeed, the official Code of Laws of the game has, since 2000, included a Preamble on the Spirit of Cricket.  As it says: “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this Spirit causes injury to the game itself”.  The Preamble goes on to explain the roles and responsibilities of captains, players and umpires in respecting and upholding the Spirit of Cricket.  Having been a captain and a player and just recently qualified as an umpire myself, I have been giving some thought as to what this entails in this team game for individuals.

For it’s clear that it is the captain, not the umpire, who is the most important person on the pitch.  In professional football it is always the manager who is sacrificed if the team underperforms, but in cricket it is the captain who loses his job.

So with the pinnacle of the cricket calendar, the Ashes series of England versus Australia test matches, due to start on Wednesday 8 July, it seems appropriate to turn to Mike Brearley, now a working psychoanalyst and generally recognised as the world’s leading authority on cricket captaincy.   Famously described by one of his opponents as having a “degree in people” there are many who believe that Brearley deserved his place in the England team on the strength of his leadership skill alone.

His masterpiece, “The Art of Captaincy”[i], describes the challenge: “Unlike a rowing eight, a cricket eleven works only by dint of differentiation. The skills, like the shapes and sizes of their owners, are diverse….The captain must know how to deploy whatever skills his players have at their disposal. He must enable them to widen their own range, to have the confidence to experiment. In short, the captain must get the best out of his team by helping them to play together without suppressing flair and uniqueness”.

Surely this is what effective leadership is all about, not just deciding where the fielders are going to stand, or whose turn it is to bowl next, and certainly not facing the chin music for them, but making sure that every player performs to the absolute best of their ability.

So, the evening before the start of the Ashes, it will be interesting to see what the participants in CEDR’s Leadership Anniversary debate “What does winning look like?” have to say about how today’s leaders develop the understanding and capability to be successful in negotiation and conflict; and where this knowledge will take us in the future.  And maybe this comment from Mike Brearley in a 2013 interview[ii] gives them a good place to start the discussion: “There has always been, in every team, every class, in every business board, in every group, every family, a conflict. And, conflict is not a bad thing. It is necessary. Tension is necessary. Argument is necessary. Opinions are necessary. But, hopefully, the overall balance is for the good of the team or family. Sometimes it isn’t. Now, I don’t think it has changed in that way.  I think that has always been so, just that it gets a little bit more out now. It is more public. I don’t think it is particularly different now if I was writing about the tension, the liveliness. A good team is often the team with lots of strong personalities, like a family with lot of strong personalities. But, overall, there is a lot of respect for the whole family, and for each other. And, within that, you can accommodate an argument, a debate, different opinions, elements of conflicts, degrees of jealousy, these things are inevitable. Insecurity, over-confidence, a bit of brashness. All these things come in to human lives and into cricket teams. And, you live with it, and you are not really going to get rid of it because you don’t really want to. That is what life is. That is what humans are. The thing is to get the best out of it”.

 

 

[i] The Art of Captaincy, M Brearley, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (1985)

[ii] http://thecricketcouch.com/couch-talk/transcript-couch-talk-with-mike-brearley/

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