25 January 2018

Why Talented Individuals Struggle with Leadership 

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

Do superstar athletes truly relate to the struggles most people have to reach the peak of their sport? After all, these once in a lifetime athletes perform seemingly impossible feats with apparent ease. If not, can superstar athletes lead a team filled with less talented individuals? CONQA explores the challenges of captaincy and how talent can often get in the way of good leadership.

Virat Kohli is as talented as they come; a once in a generation player with the world at his feet. But do his capabilities get in the way of his abilitiy to lead?

Virat Kohli is as talented as they come; a once in a generation player with the world at his feet. But do his capabilities get in the way of his abilitiy to lead?

With a cricket bat in his hand, India’s Virat Kohli is a magician. He wafts his willow as if it were a wand, casting spells that are both enthralling and devastating. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing a Test, a One Day International or a T20 match, he averages above 50 in all three formats. He is also the highest earning cricketer on the planet with the Bollywood wife, there is no doubt that he is the undisputed king of his domain.

Kohli does not merely walk to the crease; he struts out with equal measures of self-assurance and self-importance. He takes on hostile questions from the press, with the same aggression that he dishes out to hapless bowlers.

When standing at second slip, his mouth runs as rapidly as his strike-rate and he heaps scorn on opponent and teammate alike. Kohli makes the game look so easy. The problem is not many cricketers around the world have as much natural talent oozing out of every pore as he does. There is an argument to be made that great players do not necessarily make great leaders. However, they can’t comprehend the struggles mere mortals have to endure.

Speaking at an executive breakfast in Johannesburg before the third Test between South Africa and India, former South African captain Graeme Smith questioned Kohli’s leadership abilities.

“We all know he’s an outstanding player, his intensity really benefits his own personal game,” said Smith (who captained his country in 108 Tests.). “Sometimes as a leader you’ve got to consider how you impact the others in the environment, that’s an area of his leadership that he needs to grow.”

Smith was by no means a genius with the bat but was a renowned batsmen. He once faced up to Australia’s Mitchell Johnson, arguably the most feared bowler on the planet at the time, with a broken hand and dragged his cumbersome technique across 205 Test innings with an average of 48.25.

What made Smith such an impessive leader was a combination of sheer mindedness and an understanding that playing Test cricket is a challenge. He was able to tap in to the mental state of a struggling teammate, put an arm around his shoulder and offer a sympathetic word of encouragement. The ease with which Kohli plays the game inhibits his ability to understand struggle.

For Doug Whaley, former General Manager of the NFL franchise - The Buffalo Bills, it is this lack of struggle that coaches and managers must be cautious of when handing a star player the captaincy reins.

“Supremely talented athletes are able to do things that most people can’t, how can we expect them to see the world with the same eyes as the rest of us?” Whaley asked CONQA at the 2017 Elite Sport Summit held in October in Cape Town. “I’ve seen it before; these superstars don’t have to put in as much effort as their teammates to produce the same performances. When they do step it up they’re able to reach heights that not many people can reach.”

Whaley explains that when he trusted his highly talented players with leadership duties he would often find they were unable to connect with a teammate experiencing a loss of form or confidence. He says that their failure to relate to the ‘everyman’ athlete led to them questioning their teammates’ commitment.

“I’d see our best players say something along the lines of, “You just need to put in the effort”, or, “You just need to try harder, You see, these guys would put in extra effort and the results would come. Extra effort for them was the difference between being good and being great. For most people there is a ceiling and extra effort won’t make as much of a difference and the results won’t necessarily come.”

That is not to say that a superstar athlete is inherently not cut out for leadership. Empathy does not require shared experiences, a captain that effortlessly produces match winnings performances can still provide a soundboard for a struggling teammate. As Smith says, the key thing here is a willingness to be challenged.

“When I look at Virat, I think he needs someone who can constructively challenge him and to help him grow,” He has all the capabilities tactically, he knows his own game, he sets the standard in the field for everyone else. It’s almost a case of leading by example."

But Smith highlights Kohli’s “emotional side” as a potential barrier that could get in the way of him bridging the divide, between himself and his teammates and prevent him relating to their struggles:

“He gets really fired up and he has to consider how that affects other people. I think if he had a constructive person in his environment, make him think, maybe even challenge him with different ideas in a constructive way and open his eyes to other possibilities, that would make him a really good leader.”

Whaley stresses the importance of focussing on the right variables. “If we concede that the superstar athlete is not going to intrinsically understand the struggles of his teammates, do we abandon the possibly that he will become a successful leader? No, we challenge him. Superstar athletes enjoy challenges; that is part of what makes them so great.

“The same principles can be applied to leadership. Challenge him on tactics, on man-management skills, on his ability to empathise with teammates. These guys know they’re superstars. But if you can harness that drive and desire to be challenged, you can tap into the same part of his game that produces performances on the field.”

Kohli is one of the toughest competitors in elite sport with over a billion people back home scrutinising his every word. He is quite possibly the most observed leader in any team across the planet. Captaincy has elevated his batting to the stratosphere, whether or not his leadership skills can catch up - remains to be seen.