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Looking for a Leadership Edge - Reflections from the Cricket World Cup

Andrew Warren-Smith

Andrew Warren Smith

Australia and New Zealand recently hosted the 11th ICC Cricket World Cup.  The cricket world cup is the international championship of One Day International (ODI) cricket.; While relatively unknown in places like the US, the tournament, which is held every four years, touches billions of people worldwide with 105 cricket-playing countries spanning more than half the world’s population. It is one of the world's most-viewed sporting events and is considered the flagship event of the international cricket calendar.

Reflections from the Cricket World CupThe tournament involves several stages over six weeks, culminating in a final between the last two standing nations. This year the final was held at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and involved the two host nations, Australia and New Zealand. The game was watched live by more than 93,000 people with a further one billion people watching the tournament from across the globe.

Now before I begin, a little self disclosure. While I live in Australia now, I was born and raised in another cricket-playing nation, South Africa. While generally regarded as one of the strongest cricketing nations in the world, South Africa has yet to win a cricket world cup and again this year was knocked out in the semifinals. This naturally leads me and the rest of my birth nation down a path of reflection (and a few tears). How does New Zealand, one of the smallest nations in the world, make it to the final? Why have those damn Australians (Did I say that out loud?) been so successful over such a long period of time?

While I know sport may too often be the source of analogies and inspiration in leadership, please indulge me. Reflecting on the displays of greatness shown by the teams and their leaders will at least help me work through the disappointment of another unsuccessful world cup campaign.

Form is temporary, class is permanent

Prior to the tournament, most pundits were confident that one or both of the hosts would be playing in the final game in Melbourne with possibly two other teams vying for the top spots. At the final hurdle, however, there was only one team that stood head and shoulders above all others to claim a well-deserved 5th World Champion title. South Africa, New Zealand, and even India fought bravely in the closing rounds and displayed moments and even periods of individual brilliance, but they ultimately lacked the completeness of the Australian setup. Limited-overs cricket is an unpredictable game, but no other country has been able to replicate the success of the Australians in this form of the game. And whilst Australia can rightly claim the cup as the best-performing side in the world based on “what” they achieved, the New Zealand team was unanimously applauded for “how” they played the game. From inspirational and exemplary captaincy to the strength and character of players who carried with honour and pride the hope of a tiny nation and the respect of the entire world to their on-field interactions with other teams, this team showed true class. They managed to deliver what all good leaders and organisations aspire to: the right balance of results and culture.

It takes a village…

Australia played a series that harnessed the skills, experiences, and support of a highly professional organisation and system that went far beyond the small group of players who took to the field at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. They had good leaders and great individual performances, but there is so much more to this team than a bunch of highly talented cricketers. This result was the work of a finely tuned “system” that has produced a winning result more often than any other country in the history of the game. The captains and players have changed over the years, yet the team continues to achieve greatness. They have learned how to create an environment in which the teams and individuals have developed the confidence and freedom to demonstrate the best they have to offer.

Two of the stars of the World Cup final publicly acknowledged the enormous impact that targeted coaching and conditioning they received during the tournament contributed to the success they had on the field. Mitchell Starc praised his coach for the many months of work it took to perfect his bowling action, which ultimately led to him taking the most wickets and being recognised as the player-of-the series. Similarly, James Faulkner (player-of-the-final) credited his training and conditioning staff for helping him to recoup his fitness and play a pivotal role in the final match. These examples reflect the impact that high-quality coaching and support can have on performances when one is clear on the “need” and “approach.” Especially in the case of high-potential players, using objective data upfront to identify the development need, a focused, methodical plan can be generated to provide specific coaching and feedback to achieve the stated objective.

Context and pressure matter

New Zealand went into their first World Cup final game saying they would treat the match “like any other game.” Whilst one can appreciate the rationale of this phrase to reduce the pressure and expectations associated with a big occasion, it might well have been an error in their tactics. This wasn’t just another game. It came with a level of pressure and scrutiny that was different from anything they had faced before. Were they ready for the pressure, and how would they respond?

The reality is big occasions often call for a different approach, and pressure will almost inevitably elicit different behaviours and responses. If we don’t understand, confront, and manage our responses under pressure, the risk of derailment increases. Could the outcome have been different if New Zealand adjusted their attacking style of batting at key times during the game? We will never know, but one suspects that the next time they find themselves in a similar situation they will be much more aware of their responses and actions.

Innovation and change are the keys to growth

As we reflect on the completion of another magnificent World Cup (well almost) where a group of talented sportsmen came together to pit their skills against the very best in the world—let’s take a moment to remember a two key points: Cricket is more than 450 years old, yet players continue to innovate the way they bat, bowl and field, and score more runs than ever before, making for a more exciting and entertaining spectacle.

If cricket can continue to evolve after 450 years, then organisations and leaders can too. Leaders who embrace the opportunity to adapt and innovate will be the ones at the top of the leaderboard.

Andrew Warren-Smith is general manager NSW for DDI Australia

Posted: 17 Apr, 2015,
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