Sign up for free e-zine at:
by Keith Coats
When it comes to the Australian cricket team there are very few neutrals: You either love them or hate them. However, regardless of which side of the fence you happen to be, the one thing that you cannot deny is the fact that they are, without fear of contradiction, the number one side in the world in both forms of the game. The Australian brand of cricket is professional, ruthless and bold. They would rather lose trying to win than play for a draw. And win they do, with a consistency to be admired and one that is unmatched by their rivals. In developing their winning culture, they have transformed the way test cricket is played and have become the benchmark for the chasing pack.
But cricket, as with life, is seasonal. The Australians have not always enjoyed their current dominance, having wrestled the crown from the West Indies in the early 1990’s. Embedded in the rise and ascendancy of the Australians are some valuable lessons for leaders everywhere. These insights are succinctly encapsulated by the life and career of former captain Steve ‘Tugga’ Waugh, in his excellent autobiography, Out of my Comfort Zone (ISBN 0-670-04198-1).
By the time Waugh inherited the captaincy of the test side from Tubby Taylor in 1999, Australian cricket already enjoyed worldwide dominance. Getting to that point had entailed putting in place a very deliberate process. It was a process that required patience, commitment and consistent application, all of which were fuelled by the desire to be the best. Steve Waugh’s character and leadership epitomized these characteristics that marked the process and in so doing, provide lessons for leaders everywhere.
Waugh described the role of captain as one that required him to be an advisor, mentor, friend, psychologist, mediator, spokesperson, politician and selector. Today’s corporate leader can identify with the multi-facetted role and nature that is contemporary leadership. In the emerging Connection economy leaders are required to assume many roles and any reluctance or refusal to recognize this reality, results in a one dimensional leadership in which the leader’s impact and effectiveness are diluted. Dexterity, flexibility and an ability to recognise what role is required are skills that are integral to savvy leadership. The normal corporate environment is a cacophony of diversity that demands of leaders the ability to respond in a variety of ways. This requires leaders to exhibit a great degree of emotional intelligence, understanding and sensitivity. It could be an interesting exercise to make a list of the various roles you as a leader have been required to play over the past four months and then to examine your performance as you have done so. Valuable questions then include: Which roles require further development? Which are the roles that energize and which have been the ones that have drained energy? What roles are needed, but are missing?
Here then are lessons that savvy leaders can take from the Steve Waugh story:

Create a healthy work environment.
Creating a healthy work environment is not something that can be achieved overnight. It requires consistency and a clear picture of the environment that one is trying to create. Working off clearly articulated values is one way to guide the creation of an environment that will reflect such ideals. Often companies succeed in articulating the values only to fail in the follow through of then building an environment that embodies those values. That failure becomes the breeding ground for cynicism, bad morale and a lack of motivation. Waugh constantly sought to challenge, stimulate and provoke those around him to ensure the creation of a healthy work environment. As most leaders can attest too, at times this can be a thankless task! When it comes to bricks and mortar, Googleplex, the colourful Silicon Valley corporate head office of Google, (where staff can receive a daily free massage) stands as a testimony to what a healthy work environment looks like. Sergey Brin and Larry Page spared no expense in building a place people wanted to be and an environment that catered for almost their every need. Of course, a healthy work environment extends beyond the bricks and mortar, but that might not be a bad place to start in order to show some sort of intent in the quest to breed a winning culture!
Respect the past but initiate new processes.
As an Australian cricketer and captain, Waugh was very conscious of being part of something bigger. He sought to honour the past and its traditions without becoming ensnared by the same. His affection for his ‘baggy green’ (cap) was well known as he kept the same one throughout his entire international career that spanned 18 years and included 128 test matches and over 200 ODI’s (One Day Internationals). For Waugh, the cap symbolized all that Australian cricket stood for and represented. Waugh introduced the idea of former players presenting the cap to debutants which was a deliberate attempt to link the present with the past and draw inspiration from that which had gone before. Such a ritual also had the effect of exemplifying a maxim I have learnt from my involvement in the Asia Pacific Leadership Programme (APLP) at the East West Center in Honolulu which is: ‘Honour the beginning and begin with honour’. Wanting to mark the first test of the new millennium, Waugh succeeded in having his idea to introduce replica caps of those worn by Joe Darling’s team during the 1901-02 Ashes series adopted, with the hope that this will be repeated another 100 years on. Leaders can end up guarding the ‘wrong thing’ when it comes to the often prickly matter of the past and tradition. Somehow Waugh seemed to manage the tension between respecting the past yet introducing new initiatives. It is a balance leaders would do well to replicate. The challenge of course being that there can be no formula to follow: each has to discover and navigate their own path in attempting this balance. Discussion and open conversations with those past and present, getting a sense of the overarching ‘story’, would be a good place to start.

Empower those around you.

Waugh regarded a major part of his captaincy role to be the empowerment his players by re-enforcing positive messages and providing opportunities. This is an obvious strategy but there is an important precursor to such a strategy, namely, getting to know those around you first. Knowing the strengths, weaknesses, values and viewpoints of those around you are important if appropriate opportunities are to be created. A trademark of Waugh’s captaincy was to back his players to the hilt. He believed that faith and support was all that a talented individual needed within a team environment and took any opportunity to praise his players. Re-enforce positive messages and providing opportunities builds confidence – a vital ingredient for any sportsperson. Waugh believed that as captain he could make things happen if he instilled belief and planted seeds of hope in those he led. Why would it be any different in a corporate environment?
Be flexible and embrace variety.

In other words, get everyone out of the comfort zone. This very concept forms the title of Waugh’s story and is a central theme in his own journey as a cricketer and leader. He describes how the responsibility of leadership consistently challenged his personal comfort zones as he was required to perform roles to which he was unaccustomed. For any leader, the obvious result of a willingness to embrace flexibility and variety, is personal growth. For the company as a whole, the ability to be flexible is a critical determining factor in building and sustaining success. Learning companies are those where the need to be flexible is taken as a given.
Commitment and accountability are non-negotiable.
Waugh firmly believed that assuming personal and collective responsibility led to success. This ‘formula’ for success applies equally well to the corporate sector but is sadly, more often than not, glaringly absent. Waugh believed that a successful team was one whose collective will could manipulate the critical moments in their favour by never giving up. The evidence of this has become a hallmark of Australian cricket sides that can never be written off no matter how dire the situation in which they find themselves.
Deal with the issues before they become major problems.
Waugh came to understand that dealing with issues not directly related to the team but which could impact the team was part of his job. He found that on being elevated to the captaincy he was suddenly expected to know something about everything, almost as if his intelligence had all of a sudden increased with his stature. Many CEO’s can identify with this experience. Recently in Thailand a wise leader told me that leaders were required to know, ‘something about everything, and everything about something’! In the complexity of the role that Waugh found himself in he quickly realised that it was better to deal with issues early, before they became major headaches. In other words, deal with problems before they become endemic. In leadership this is sound advice especially for those who are prone to procrastination. However there is a caution to be sounded at this point. There are times when ‘deciding not to decide’ can be a valid option. Brazilian businessman and author Ricardo Semler refers to this as, ‘leadership by omission’ (Maverick & The Seven Day Weekend). When one is aware of the value of process and allowing others to assume responsibility, such an approach has merit. The trick for leaders is to know which approach to adopt and why it is they are following that particular tack. In many executive and management teams, problems that drain energy and absorb valuable resources can be traced to situations that could have, should have, been nipped in the bud. Honesty and consistency go a long way to ensuring credibility if you are to deal with issues as they emerge. Of course there is also the need for the leader to accept that if you are to use such an approach with others, then it needs to be applicable both ways. Or to put it another way: Inherent in the leader dealing early with the issues that arise, is a tacit invitation to reciprocity.
Praise in public and criticize in private.

There are some who believe that a public dressing down can spur motivation and get results. On occasion they may be right but it is at best a high-risk approach and the danger of losing respect and trust obvious. Waugh’s approach was never to risk anything that might contribute to a player’s confidence being broken or result in humiliation. Leaders would do well to remember this maxim of ‘praise in public and criticize in private’ if they wish to build trust, loyalty and get the best from those they lead.
Treat everyone equally but differently.

Herein sits the true genius of the Savvy leader. Savvy leaders in a Connection economy recognise that they are required to adopt a variety of approaches in order to effectively lead others. Waugh understood this principle and worked hard to understand what he needed to be and do in order to get the best out of those around him. This represents a potentially huge shift for those who have been used to leading in a situation where the context, as well as their personal style, favoured a ‘command and control’ approach. In diverse settings a leader cannot afford to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ style. Getting this balance right will require a thoughtful and deliberate effort on the part of the leader. Perhaps a helpful template to better understand this can be taken from the world of parenting. Parents who have more than one child understand the need to take different approaches to a range of issues from discipline to motivation with their children. Whilst the children are loved and valued equally, the differing approaches are designed to recognise and celebrate the unique personality of each child. Well at least, that’s what smart parents do!
Learn from each other .
This emerged as one of the most surprising themes from what I learnt from Waugh’s approach to leadership. It was not so much the principle of learning from one another, but rather how he chose to go about it – the methodology he employed. Of course there were the traditional approaches that included mentoring and coaching but Waugh was bold enough to try several more unconventional approaches in the quest to imprint mutual learning into the DNA of the team. One such approach had each player formally addressing the team on any topic about which they were passionate. Such session’s traversed subjects from fly-fishing to the history of heavy metal music. From this base, being open to receive and share vital cricket knowledge, was made that much easier. Waugh instilled a respect for the opposition and a trained consciousness to detect what could be learnt from observing those against whom they played. ‘There is always something to be learnt’ was the approach.

Have Fun.

There was a time when ‘fun’ and ‘work’ were considered mutually exclusive terms. That is no longer the case. Changes in expectations of the work environment, fuelled by shifts in society as well as shifts in generational profiles at work, have all influenced the move towards understanding fun at work is something smart companies ensure is part of their DNA. Waugh understood this and he ensured that the Australian cricket team, under his leadership, would never lack in the ‘f un at work’ department! ‘Fun’ is something that resonates with successful teams no matter what their context. Waugh recalls many such episodes (my favourite being the fielders attaching giant plastic ears to mimic the bowler McDermott as he was in mid-stride towards the bowling crease) and he makes the important point that in pursuit of the fun, significant team-time was generated. Out of ‘having fun’ come the stories that shape and influence organisational culture. Savvy leaders know this and understand the duel importance of fun and stories. As a result, Savvy leaders pay careful attention to both.
Continually improve your own game.

It was obvious to all who watched Steve Waugh play the game he loved, that he was relentless in his approach to perfection. He became renowned for his mental toughness and if you had to nominate anyone to, ‘bat for your life,’ then Steve Waugh was your man. However, this feature of Waugh’s game was something that he spent many hours cultivating, as he realised what an asset it would be in the tough world that is international cricket. With a ruthless efficiency Waugh would identify aspects of his game that could be improved on, and then set about doing just that. In contrast to Waugh’s attitude, many CEO’s I have encountered have quit learning. Well, they may learn indirectly, but deliberate initiatives to subject themselves to new learning are rare. It may be through a fear of failure or potential embarrassment to reputation but when last did you see a CEO sitting in on some or other training with the troops? Imagine the message that would send were senior leadership occasionally sit in on some training and do so not as a mere PR exercise, but because there was a genuine belief that they had something to learn. ‘Learner Leaders’ – those willing to place a big red ‘L’ on their backs, is what is needed in corporate offices. Of course, the notion of continuous improvement is not a new concept. The Japanese having understood and practiced the principle (known as ‘Kaisen management’) for decades prior to Western attempts at imitation. However, what is often neglected in the pursuit of continuous improvement is that it is dependent on good feedback. Leaders cannot grow if they neglect to create good feedback that equates to the raw material for personal development. My rule of thumb is: the tougher the feedback, the greater the potential for growth and development. So when last did you get some really tough feedback? And more importantly, what did you do with it?
Trust your instincts.

Having won the toss at the outset of a test match, Waugh would often bowl when conventional wisdom dictated that he should bat. He learnt to follow his instincts and recounts that when he did so, he was seldom disappointed with the results. The best leaders have an instinctive feel for what needs to be done and then get on and do it. Savvy Leadership cannot be done by joining the dots or painting by numbers. Such endeavours may look good but are no more that unimaginative imitations. This is why any ‘A,B,C’ approach to leadership cannot work. Perhaps it is a flawed assumption to even think we can learn leadership outside of a willingness to ‘get lost’ – to arrive at a place stripped of clutter and noise, a place where we can learn to hear and then listen to our instincts. But try telling this to those focussed on content driven approaches to leadership formation! There will be a revolution in how leaders are prepared. There has to be as the traditional approaches simply no longer work. Business schools tasked with ‘teaching’ leadership should be at the forefront of such change. The tragedy is that most of them are not. Many that I have encountered are allowing themselves to be dictated to by restrictive academic considerations and the flawed expectations of those who make use of such institutions. Somehow the end result of having endured the curriculum (the graduate) and benefits of such experienced by the waiting reality (the company), remain strangers. For those serious about preparing leaders for 2020 and beyond, there is the need for deeper and wider reaching conversations, more experimentation, and the teachers need to become learners.
Lead by example.

This of course is a firmly entrenched leadership principle and common sense really. Yet all too often leaders are guilty of behaviour that exhibits a flagrant disregard for such wisdom. Somehow Waugh throughout his captaincy never lost touch with his down to earth nature, displaying empathy for the common, the ordinary, the rookie. Leaders who lose touch with their constituency begin to demand of others, standards and actions that they themselves fail to subscribe too. When this happens the leader’s credibility and integrity evaporate like a morning mist and any resultant compliance on the part of those being led should not be mistaken for loyalty or a willingness to do what needs to be done. The dislocation between decree and example often has small and innocuous beginnings, but can spread subversively with devastating implications. Waugh never lost an opportunity to serve those around him as well as undertaking some of the more menial team tasks when required to do so. A good way to ground this principle is for any leader to be able to actively access their memory of their first day, first experience, first event – allowing that recall to shape their attitude and actions as a leader. I remember driving my eldest son to his first day at High School, a giant step into the unknown for any 13 year old and a somewhat intimidating experience for most. As we made the journey I explored how he felt and pushed him articulate all that was going on in his head and heart. I wanted him to be able to reference what he was thinking and feeling now for a time that would come later. Five years on we made the same journey, this time at the start of his final year in High School. This time he was going to school having been elected as a prefect (school leader), and as we talked about what that meant, we revisited the distant conversation of five years earlier, the one that had taken place on that very first school trip. As a result I would like to believe that the Prefect who stepped out the car that morning did so with a greater awareness and readiness when it came to his encounters with those wide-eyed first-timers who were only now embarking on their High School careers. I would like to think that such sensitivity would be a valuable and enduring building block in his leadership journey.
Don’t settle for good when you can be great.
Waugh set high standards for himself and his team. Any Savvy leader does the same. Waugh set about a tangible action plan that would ensure that the rhetoric of ‘good to great’ would translate into measurable reality. Talent, skill, passion, discipline, respect for oneself and others, were all important factors in the journey from good to great. However, Waugh identified other vital ingredients that would be required. These included:

  • Raising the bar of expectations
  • Identifying and overcoming obstacles in the way
  • Getting to know each other
  • Being honest with oneself and the rest of the team
  • Enjoying each other’s success
  • Playing to their strengths

Not a bad list for any leader to emulate!
Be yourself: Know yourself.
This is the kind of advice one would expect from some wise sage or bearded guru atop a pole! Truth is that such advice can be traced back through centuries of wisdom literature and is anything but ‘new’. Nonetheless, once again this wisdom emerges, albeit in an unfamiliar context and in this instance sporting a well-worn baggy green cap! It is sound advice to any leader and embedded in this advice is a golden key: one that unlocks the pathway to emotional intelligence. This pathway can only be successfully navigated by allowing for frequent pauses for reflection. For it is through reflection that personal growth is made possible. Unlocking this wisdom is not dependent on an instant or a moment, but rather, it necessitates a journey – a process. Through their presence Savvy leaders enable those around them to be better; they also make them want to share the journey. This was something that ‘Tugga’ Waugh believed in and exemplified.
Is it any wonder then, that an Australian cricket captain who diligently kept a reflective journal throughout his distinguished international career, is able to offer such insightful advice on leadership!

TomorrowToday Global