Every other year, Australia and England play a cricket test match series against each other known as the Ashes, competing for the smallest - but arguably most revered - trophy in international sport. This series gets top billing on sports shows, and is hyped beyond belief. And yesterday, Sunday, 23 August, it ended for 2009.
England won the series, with a comprehensive outplaying of the Aussies at the Oval, leaving them 2-1 winners. It was not a great series, with few memorable moments, and, to be honest, with England and Australia now ranked fifth and fourth best test teams in the world, it probably was never going to be good cricket.
But there are a few lessons I think we can learn about leadership. If you're not a cricket fan, then maybe just skip this post - I'll be back to talking about future trends later this week.
If you're still with me, I first made the connection between cricket and leadership a few months ago on my own blog, where I predicted that Ricky Ponting would go down in history as a very bad leader. I called him lucky, at best.
Yesterday, as he became the first Australian cricket captain to lose two Ashes series, his luck ran out.
Ponting, like many business leaders over the past two years, has found that it was not their own genius that created success, but rather the luck of circumstances. Ponting inherited one of the greatest cricket teams of all time, with the likes of Hayden, Warne, Gilchrist, Lee and McGrath all in their prime. He was (and remains) one of the finest batsmen to ever play the game. But, as a cricket captain he lacks finesse.
His choices are often wrong (like his decision to not bowl a spinner at the Oval test match this past week). His on field tactics lack imagination. And he does not seem to be able to motivate his team, especially when they are down.
This is similarly true of many business leaders today. They inherited, rather than earned, their success. Most of the world's CEOs have risen up either through the finance department, or through engineering/operations. Neither of these options are natural crucibles for the development of innovative, self aware, emotionally intelligent leaders.
From 2001 to 2007, the world's economy was flying, credit was flowing, and only the very inept (or the very unlucky) failed to be successful, regardless of their actual leadership abilities. Almost every industry was experiencing a boom. In fact, the British Chancellor (now PM), Gordon Brown famously proclaimed in September 2000 that the business cycle of "boom and bust has been abolished", and an endless boom lay ahead (read his infamous speech). Ridiculous when you think about it, but that was the general feeling throughout almost every industry.
I remember, for example, speaking at the annual South African motor industry banquet in 2005, when they were talking about how to handle double digit growth for a sustained period of the next 10 years or more! (Only the superbly sage senior statesman of the industry, Brand Pretorius, disagreed, and put his projections much lower over the medium term.) Banks, estate agents, mines, insurers, retailers, and professionals of every ilk, were looking forward to a glorious future.
It wasn't that difficult to be a "leader" in this environment. Just do more of the same. Seriously, innovation has not really happened over the past decade. Be honest - how much true innovation (game-changing stuff) has really happened in your industry in the last 10 years? But, then the credit crunch hit.
The bottom fell out of most markets, credit dried up almost instantly this time last year, and leaders found out that "more of the same" wasn't good enough. But many leaders do not have the ability to reinvent, rethink and reconfigure their companies in the midst of a foundation-shaking crisis. They don't have the interpersonal skills to pull their teams together in tough times. They issue decrees from on high, become more dictatorial, cut costs (mainly by cutting people), try and do more of what used to make them successful, and strike fear (and sometimes loathing) through their organisations.
Of course, not all leaders are like this. And I'm overstating it in order to make my point. But I do think that Warren Buffett was right: "When the tide of growth goes out, you get to see who was swimming naked". I truly hope this recession brings with it a new understanding of the type of leadership that long-term successful (and fulfilling) companies need.
England won this cricket series without any great players, and (except Broad's bowling spell on the second day of the last test) without any truly great performances.
It was a team effort, without ego (witness the humble interview by captain Andrew Strauss, and cringe even as you think what would have been said had Kevin Pietersen still been in charge), without bluster (compare this to Ponting's frequent outbursts and whines during this series - a performance that drew almost constant boos from the normally sporting English cricket crowds), and without fanfare (the coach, Andy Flower, has been almost anonymous throughout the series, but surely deserves a lot of the credit for such a unified team). England cricket has been in crisis.
They have needed a leader who would lead from the front, walk the talk, remove the egos from the dressing room, and humbly develop a team to deal with the situation in which England found themselves. Strauss is also probably lucky that he met a rudderless Australian unit, in the midst of a meltdown of note. I think he will discover a different story when he plays South Africa later this year.
But for today, the lesson is this:
You should not promote your best tactician to leadership - the skills to be good on the front line differ markedly from the skills required to lead a team. This is even more critical during a crisis. Businesses might have to make the same tough choice that now faces the Australian selectors: do you leave a clearly underperforming - and underskilled - leader on the job? Or do you admit that tough times call for tough choices, and change your leader to someone who can pull the team together, envisage a new future, and humbly lead from the front?
I know what I would do.
And I am immensely proud of what South Africa's cricket leader, Graeme Smith, has learnt over the past few years. He is that kind of leader. Roll on the southern hemisphere summer - the cricket's going to be great!
Hopefully, as the economy begins a slow recovery, our businesses will get great leaders too.
[24 Aug 2009 16:42]