14 January 2016
Captain Fantastic: The Craft of Great Leadership
When Alexander the Great brought his Macedonian army in front of the uncountable force of the Persian Empire, he apparently eased the concerns of his generals with a thought on leadership: "I am more afraid of an army of sheep lead by a lion, than an army of lions lead by a sheep", or something akin to that. Great captains can make ordinary teams great. Some are worth their place in the side through their leadership alone. But what makes a great captain, and is leadership a skill or an innate gift bestowed on a few? CONQA Sport explores.
Hashim Amla shocked the cricket world when he stepped down as South Africa’s Test captain shortly after the drawn second Test with England last week. At the press conference in which he announced his resignation, Amla looked calm and content, evidently relieved to be shaking off the weight of leadership that he never seemed to carry with much conviction.
This is not the first time Amla has relinquished control in his career. He did so in 2005 after only one season as captain of his domestic side, the Kwa-Zulu Natal Dolphins, and then again as South Africa’s One Day International (ODI) vice-captain two years ago.
As a result, his enthusiasm for the Test job was questioned from the moment he took over from Graeme Smith in 2014. He was labelled as a reluctant captain and one whose elevation was helped by the colour of his skin.
He constantly refuted such claims, stating that: “You don’t look like me in this world without being firm on what you want to do” (referencing his enormous beard, a reflection of his devotion to his religion). Whatever the case, Amla steps down after overseeing South Africa’s longest run without a Test win (8) and with a paltry win rate of 28%.
Despite being a modern great of the game, one of the most likeable characters in world sport couldn’t translate individual talent into successful captaincy.
And that is the point, being a world class performer does not guarantee world class leadership. Mike Brearley, captain of England’s cricket side from 1977-1981, is widely considered one of the most astute and complete captains in any sport and yet was barely a competent player. His average of 22.8 would not be acceptable as a top order batsman in any era, yet his selection was assured for his captaincy alone.
Brearley told ESPN’s Cricinfo, “Some of the great players haven’t been great captains because they haven’t been able to understand the struggle.” He argues that the game comes too easily to some greats. Part of what makes certain players succeed is a selfishness that drives their performances. If they do well for the team it is because they have done well as an individual.
In sports like basketball, rugby or football (soccer), this selfishness can be a positive trait in a captain. In these fast-paced sports, a good captain is one who leads by example. Richie McCaw, the legendary New Zealand All Blacks captain, said: “There is no point in trying to be a captain if you are not worth your place in the side.” Unlike Brearley, captains like Roy Keane, Larry Bird and Brian O’Driscoll would not have established themselves as great leaders if they weren’t also great players. Cricket exposes a captain unlike any other sport as the state of play is so heavily affected by his decisions, both on and off the field.
Leadership is an abstract concept and the composition of it will vary from individual to individual. There is no set checklist that a great leader must complete. However, sport is a results driven industry and successful captains will always be judged by the performance of their team. Winning is almost always a non-negotiable when we judge captains.
Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh both captained the Australian cricket side during their most dominant years between 1999 and 2011. Was their success down to fantastic leadership, or did they simply have near unbeatable teams? Amla’s Proteas were a team in transition after losing senior players through retirement and consistent injury.
Would the two Australians have fared better with the players that Amla had during South Africa’s recent tour to India (which they lost 3-0)? Let’s assume that they would have. It’s doubtful they would have won the series but there is no way they would have worn the same “Who, me?” look on their face with as much regularity as Amla. Amla is a senior player in the squad, an excellent player, and a leader amongst his peers. His input will still be invaluable to the squad and few in the Proteas set up know more about the game. He simply lacked that special something that takes great leaders and players and makes them great captains.
The question is: what is that something?
According to Captain Thomas Chaby, a retired US Navy SEAL with over 30 years’ experience leading troops in combat situations, that special something is not hardwired into our DNA, but programmed into our software.
He says, “Great leaders are made, not born. Maybe through your childhood you’ve been conditioned in a specific way or have experienced certain situations that lend itself to leadership, but it is a skill that you develop and need to work on.”
According to Brearley, who literally wrote the book on the subject in 1985, titled The Art of Captaincy, it is a combination of people skills and tactical acumen, with the former far more important than the latter. It was his fascination with people and his subsequent conversations with all his teammates that led him to develop the most important tool for leadership: empathy.
In tough situations, a leader is required to make a call that will turn things around. Unfortunately, in elite sport, individual ego is a factor that has to be navigated as it could potentially hinder buy-in from the rest of the team. Every player on the field would have an opinion on which tactics would work and it is up to the captain to get everyone on board. Knowing how to do this is more important than coming up with the play.
A captain that understands that each athlete is different and adjusts his or her approach accordingly will get the best out of that athlete. Brearley is credited with getting the best out of the often difficult Sir Ian Botham, and guiding England to their famous victory over Australia in the 1981 Ashes series.
For Captain Chaby, empathy is impossible without having experienced exactly what your players are going through. A good leader instils confidence in his or her troops or athletes when making decisions because those decisions are tried and tested. “If you haven’t been there, it’s impossible to really be able to reflect and come up with an answer that will be effective in that situation,” Captain Chaby says.
One of Amla’s successes as captain was the emergence of Temba Bavuma. The diminutive batsman became the first black African to score a century for South Africa and there is no doubt that Amla deserves a lot of credit for that. Amla recently spoke out about the struggles non-white players still face in this country. It is fair to assume that he had many conversations with Bavuma and was able to relate on a level that would be impossible for many of his teammates.
It is impossible to empathise so intimately with every player under your command. Another tool every good leader needs to implement is a concept that Captain Chaby calls “teamability”. For the SEALs, in the heat of combat, every soldier, whether a seasoned officer or a green private, is empowered with the responsibility of coming up with the right answer in any situation.
This instils each member of the team with a confidence in his or her own ability: it tells them that they belong there and that their teammates trust them. Furthermore, it liberates players from the fear of making a mistake because there will always be a teammate to help out. This unity is only possible if the leader creates an environment where accountability thrives.
“Captains need to balance between autocracy and consultation,” Brearley said at seminar in 2014. “Every leader has to work to lessen his narcissism to be responsive to the members of his team and the task.”
A great captain will be different things to different people and is able to slip in and out of the required role whenever necessary. Sometimes he will be the disciplinarian, other times the parental nurturer. If need be, a leader will try something audacious or temper his charges in order to remain calm. A great leader believes in every decision or game plan that is implemented. Elite athletes can sniff out a lack of confidence like a shark senses a drop of blood in the ocean.
Most importantly, a great captain is one who has an immense passion for the game that inspires others to follow. The great captain leads by example, not necessarily with on field performances, but through determination and hard work. Whenever he asks a teammate to dig deep and produce something exceptional, he is met with a nod, and an obliging “anything for you skipper”.
CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.