Controlling the Pitch: Leadership Lessons to Look for in the ICC WC 2019

A sporting match in action – especially a team sport like cricket – has some strong parallels with business. The multiple variables at play make the game a dynamically evolving situation;newer players, personal temperaments and form, different placements, different strategies come together to create enough permutations to ensure a surprise element in every game. And skill being balanced on both sides, the team with leadership that can take charge of the game and keep the troops united, will usually emerge the winner.

Of course, business does not have the pressure of a time limit measured in minutes, but as a microcosm, a game of cricket offers a great analogy for today’s business leaders and entrepreneurs. Challenged as we are with fast changing markets and newer rules of engagement (both with internal stakeholders and external), there might be some interesting takeaways for us as we unwind while watching our favourite teams slog it out in the upcoming world cup! Here are a few insights that will be interesting to look out for:

Data in Preparation, Instinct in Action

Business and sport have both been changed (completely, some might say) by technology. The overwhelming availability of data often jostles with our own preferred strategy or style of execution, and many businesses today face the challenge of choosing between following where the data leads them, and using data to shape or fine tune a preferred strategy.

Sports coaches and captains know this too. With intensive data available on every team, every play and every player, both teams today come into the field knowing that the other has studied their previous matches and analysed their preferred strategies, player styles, strengths and weaknesses. As restrictive as this may seem, somewhere in the match, a player changes style, a team adopts unconventional field placement, an over or two bring windfall gains – and the game is no longer predictable. Watching the captains’ reactions and strategies at this point should definitely hold a lesson or two on distilling data insights into instinctive action on the field.

Decision Making, On the Double

Much, much faster than double actually. The value of split second decision making in sports has already been acknowledged and studied, and is probably considered one of the most highly valued skills in a team captain. An article I read by Bo Hanson, four-time Olympian and a coaching consultant, broke down the millisecond-long decision making process of a sportsperson as follows:

  • Seeing that there is a problem to be solved
  • Analysing the problem
  • Knowing the outcome to be achieved
  • Exploring the options (without reverting to auto-pilot decisions without making a real assessment of all options)
  • Choosing the best option
  • Taking action and responsibility

While this may seem no different than what entrepreneurs and business leaders do on a daily basis, being able to do it all in milliseconds takes real mastering of one’s own mind as well as the situation. Watching that in action always makes for interesting viewing!

Tricks of On-Field Communication

All sports teams, as a necessity, use some pretty sophisticated methods of signals and signs to alert, warn and nudge team mates in the midst of play. In cricket, where most fielders are out of earshot, maintaining eye contact with the captain, being able to communicate using clearly understood hand signals becomes paramount.

What is interesting, from a leader’s perspective, is to observe the ceaseless flow of messaging from and to the captain throughout the game. Parsing the bowler’s intention, the wicket keeper’s inputs on the batsman, and the fielder’s suggestions for change in placement are all akin to what business leaders do when helping different teams work together.

And the verbal on-field communication is no less interesting! MS Dhoni, the Indian ex-skipper and wicket keeper par excellence, is famous for his instructions and rallies from behind the stumps. I was recently watching a video of some of his more interesting statements during matches, and was struck by the mix of instruction, encouragement, and good-natured ribbing in his pithy comments. A lot of the in-team mood depends on the tone of the leader’s communication, and this becomes even more important in times of stress.

The Innings Break Turnaround

We all love a good turnaround game, and the more unpredictable it is until the end, the higher its entertainment value! But that’s not all a game like that offers. The post-match analysis, on TV, newspapers, blogs and social media, is a rich mine of all that was done right by and could have gone wrong for the underdog winning team. The captain’s crucial decisions are highlighted and analysed, and only if you’ve watched the game live, are you able to appreciate how those seemingly quick decisions and on-field actions involved a true mastering of the situation – data and understanding of the opponents and one’s team capabilities, the ability to keep calm and make aggressive decisions at the same time, and most importantly, to sustain the team’s belief in what can only be called a ‘sporting chance’ at winning the game!

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