Thursday, January 08, 2009

Leading England cricket over the cliff

In those increasingly distant days when I was corporate man (sort of) management training courses often liked to characterise management style in shorthand. One of the theories, which I always rather liked, was the idea that as individuals we can all be seen as being more or less task oriented and more or less process oriented. In general an extreme propensity to focus pragmatically on the task in hand is unlikely to be compatible with an individual also having a strong emphasis on ensuring that the correct processes are followed – and vice versa. It’s not quite as black and white as that, but as a quick description of different styles it is quite handy. Organisations need both types and ideally amongst their more senior people they need those with a blend of task and process orientation. In reality the head honchos in any hierarchy are far more likely to be process focused whilst the more junior staff are more likely to be effective if they concentrate on the task in hand. But at all levels in the hierarchy you will find those who will cut corners and bend the rules in order to achieve an immediate goal – and also those who will be anxious to stick rigorously with the process - and sometimes miss opportunities as a result.

OK enough of the management speak – what’s this got to do with cricket and the role of the captain in the game? Well for me it is reasonably self-evident that the captain of a cricket team should be primarily task oriented – indeed you could argue that this is the case for any sportsman at any time. Ask Steve Waugh or Roger Federer or Tiger Woods. But the Captain has not only to focus on the task in hand but get his team to do so as well – and in modern sport there are plenty of distractions around. Steve Waugh’s recipe sounds like a pretty good one “Captaincy is about empowerment, about making your players responsible for their actions and, in turn, accountable. It’s about treating everyone equally but differently by recognising there are varied characters and personalities who need to express their individual flair and instincts inside the ultimate team vision”. If that makes the job sound difficult then Mike Brearley makes it sound even more so “The captain…is bound to be the recipient of emotional demands and pressures from those he is responsible for. A good leader or manger is interested in what makes people tick, particularly when they seem to be difficult or withdrawn or under-achieving.”

Steve Waugh and Mike Brearley were both great captains – albeit that they have very different personal styles. But neither was an instant success. Although they had both led other teams before becoming an international captain the demands of the bigger job are such that in a way nothing really prepares you for it. And when Kevin Pietersen took over from Michael Vaughan just before the Oval Test against South Africa match in August 2008 he was even less prepared – his captaincy experience was virtually nil. Chutzpah and adrenalin carried KP to a fine win in his first Test match as captain and he followed this with a wonderful 4-0 win in the one-day series as well. Piece of cake. Except of course that it couldn’t last and the team fared less well in India – although there were not too many criticisms of KP’s captaincy, more of the failures of key players in the team like Bell and Panesar. But in his first matches as captain Pietersen can be seen to have done pretty well – not least when account is taken of the fact that the role had been thrown rather unexpectedly at him after Michael Vaughan’s sudden resignation.

Now let’s return to the management theory about task and process leaders. KP looks like the archetypical task leader to me. This is not to say that he lacks a tactical cricket brain nor that he doesn’t have an “ultimate team vision” as Steve Waugh called it. But Pietersen seems like the sort of man who really wants results and won’t let anyone stand in his way. More Shane Warne than Steve Waugh - although nobody would really call Waugh anything less than task focused! But Waugh probably wouldn’t have said about the role of the cricket coach that the “only coach a cricket team needs is the one to transport them from their hotel to the ground” as Warney once famously remarked. And one suspects that Kevin Pietersen would strongly agree with his friend Shane – and that that has been the cause of the recent trouble in the England camp. KP and Peter Moores were two girls trying to share the same stove – and that never works!

So then we have an imperative for our captain to be strongly task oriented, but not to the exclusion of the need also to be a hands-on motivator of men in the Brearley mould. What about process? Well in reality isn’t that someone else’s job? If the skipper is leading his men into battle and leading by example as well isn’t that enough? If he has a good cricket brain and a good feel for tactics on the field of play, as well as being able to inspire his team and the disparate individuals in it, can’t we leave the process management to someone else? The answer has to be yes. So when recently KP chose to pick a fight and one that seems at times to have been fought by surrogates and in the media, surely the process folks in the England hierarchy should have intervened? Maybe Hugh Morris did make the ‘phone call to KP and say to him something like “Kevin. We are hearing what you say about your relationship with Peter Moores. Please don’t do or say anything precipitate and when you are back in England lets get urgently together to discuss it. The ECB appointed you as captain for the long term and we want you to succeed. But we really must follow a proper process in respect of the definition of roles – including yours and of the coaching team. Please hold fire and we will sort it out together as soon as possible.”

If Hugh Morris did make a call along the lines that I have suggested and KP chose to ignore such a reasonable plea then KP is culpable and deserved to have been sacked. But if the ECB apparatchiks fumbled and flustered when they saw what KP seemed to be up to in relation to Moores and if this led them to private denunciations of KP’s insolence and arrogance but not to a serious attempt to avoid disaster then it is the ECB officials who are seriously to blame. On TV yesterday both Nasser Hussain and Lord MacLaurin were critical of the behaviour of Kevin Pietersen. Hussain said "Definitely, Kevin Pietersen himself should have gone about this in a much more professional way. You can't just sit on safari in South Africa and issue ultimatums to the board about the England cricket captaincy," and MacLaurin said "It is a mess and it is very sad the captain was away in South Africa but as I understand it he put a pistol to the head of the ECB and said, 'Back me or sack me', and I think the ECB were absolutely right. The ideal solution would have been to put Peter Moores and Kevin Pietersen in a room and said, 'Sort out your differences'. Sadly they were unable to do that."

We don’t yet know the full story. Whether the process management of the ECB failed - perhaps because it has been a holiday period and communication was difficult we don’t yet know. Whether KP was really as crass as suggested by Husain and MacLaurin we don’t know either. But if you accept the principle that you want your suits to manage all the processes well whilst you equip your captain and your team to win cricket matches then on the face of it it is the process managers who have completely failed in this instance. Unless it really is true that KP has acted with a total disregard to appropriate behaviour – in which case the suits shouldn’t have appointed him in the first place! As Nasser Husain also perceptively said "The ECB knew from his history what sort of guy (Pietersen) was. He was abrasive, he took people on, he asked questions of people. When he took over the captaincy, he was going to be in your face. They must have known that eventually it was going to come to a clash between Pietersen and Moores and they should have been able to react to that."

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