Leadership trumps all in the quest for success

By David Penney

The England cricket team is currently in the process of turning the sport on its head.

After years of slowly slipping down the world rankings and winning just one Test match in the last 17, they are currently looking like one of the most exciting teams to have ever played the game.

Today they have beaten India in a game in which they looked dead and buried after two days of play and over the last month they have whitewashed a New Zealand team who also just happen to be the current world champions.

To really understand how remarkable this turnaround in form and fortunes has been, one needs to just look at the records that have tumbled over the past month.

These include – and remember these records cover just short of 150 years of Test cricket – the second fastest century by an Englishman, the fastest ever opening century stand by England, the first time any team has successfully chased 250 in three consecutive matches (England have done it four times for good measure), the highest ever run chase by an England team and the ninth highest in the history of the game. 

There are even more records in terms of partnerships and speed of runs but I think the point is pretty well established – England have gone from a poor side who couldn’t buy a win to a team that is not just winning but setting new benchmarks that may potentially change forever how the game is played.

So the big question is of course, how have they done it?

Well the obvious and fairly straightforward answer to that question is leadership.

Two months ago the powers that be decided to bring in a new broom and replaced the team’s leadership, from the managing director of the England team, right down to the captain on the pitch, and from that moment on the records have not stopped tumbling. 

Whether we are talking about elite sport or a wealth management SME, the importance of mindset can never be under-estimated and the fact that the results of the last incredible six weeks have been achieved with those same players who have struggled for three years shows how important the right leadership can be. 

Central to this transformation has been the leadership of two men – the new England Coach Brendan McCullum and new England captain Ben Stokes. Both cricketers of the swashbuckling variety and certainly there was an assumption that England were likely to play a more expansive and aggressive brand of the game under their leadership.

But coming out and swinging the bat is hardly revelatory. Many teams have tried it before, and many teams have failed. Clearly, what has been instilled in this England team is much more than just the freedom to go out and play aggressively - they are playing with a confidence that suggests that they know they are going to win.

Through their actions and words, these leaders have created a mindset where their only thoughts are about winning. When asked about the fact that beating India would need the highest ever run chase at Edgbaston, Alex Lees said that this had never even entered the players’ minds.

As the great Roman poet Virgil so rightly stated, “They can because they think they can.”

What is clear is that first and foremost, McCullum and Stokes are people who lead by example. They are very much exponents of the ‘Be. Do. Say’ approach to leadership where talk alone is cheap, and actions have to match both your words and your underlying beliefs.

Through their leadership they have created an attitude where challenges are not things to be afraid of but opportunities to be faced head on – and that failure is not something to fear because it is not even being considered!

Strong leadership is a delicate balance between confidence and humility. People don’t tend to want to follow those who are weak or disengaged and are equally unlikely to want to follow those that are arrogant either.

In Stokes, the team have a leader who has what some might consider vulnerabilities, having taken time out of the team to manage his own mental health challenges, as well as the humility that comes from once being hit for four consecutive sixes in the final over to lose a World Cup final.

He has had to stand up and admit his own mistakes and shortcomings and this has enabled him to create an environment where those around him are able to do the same. Vulnerability is not a weakness when it comes to leadership but a superpower.

As leaders, Stokes and McCullum have also been decisive in their decision making and loyal to the existing team, breeding a confidence in the players that they can live up to new expectations. 

Just watching them in action, either on the pitch, on the balcony or in their media interviews, it is clear that they are genuine and authentic when it comes to other people’s success or failure, whatever the case may be. 

Every individual likes to feel seen and appreciated for the hard work they put in, even if they don’t achieve the results they desire. The players have all talked about the honesty of the conversations in the dressing room and the important feedback they receive, a vital trait in all strong leaders and a recognition that people can’t make the necessary change and improvements if they are not aware of their shortcomings.

Taking leadership lessons from the elite sports arena is certainly nothing new, indeed it was the former England cricket captain Mike Brearley who wrote the best seller The Art of Captaincy, which explored the principles of leadership and their relevance in both sport in business.

However, even Brearley may have struggled to envisage this monumental change in fortunes, a change that very clearly shows that with the right kind of leadership, whatever the arena, absolutely anything is possible. 

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