28 August 2017

Melting Pots: The Challenge of Diversity

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

After our conversation with Professor Jennifer Chatman from the University of California, Berkeley, we have become entangled in the complexities a leader faces when confronted with a multi-cultural team. With the help of two of South Africa’s greatest sports leaders, we unpack the conversation even further to get to the heart of this unique challenge.

 Östersunds FK manager Graham Potter shows his team how it's done as he peforms in Swan Lake. By putting himself and his team of a comfort zone, the Englishman has revolutionised the Swedish club. 

Östersunds FK manager Graham Potter shows his team how it's done as he peforms in Swan Lake. By putting himself and his team of a comfort zone, the Englishman has revolutionised the Swedish club. 

Six years ago, Östersunds FK were scrapping in the fourth tier of Swedish football. Today they’re in the country’s premier league and, after beating Turkish giants Galatasaray FC, and the more fancied Greek outfit PAOK, they qualified as one of only three Scandinavian teams that will take part in the group stages of the Europa League this season.

Driving the club forward is Graham Potter, the only English manager left in European football this season, whose innovative approach to man-management has seen his side gain three promotions in five years to become the Cinderella story of 2017.

Potter has created an environment that routinely pulls his players out of their comfort zone. The squad have collectively written a book, staged an art exhibition and have performed a live rendition of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to a standing ovation.

“If all we do is play football, it’s something the players are comfortable doing,” Potter told the Daily Mail last year. “It’s part of our values, trying to help them become better people – exposing them to things they haven’t done before.”

Perhaps the most poignant piece of team building orchestrated by Potter was the arranging of his players based on their historical privilege. Players who were raised in stable homes, with supportive parents sat at the opposite end of the room from their teammates, who overcame social barriers to become professional footballers.

The theory behind this exercise is that an understanding of where a teammate comes from inevitably leads to a better understanding of their motives and desires. That in turn solidifies a bond between players which results in a more cohesive performance on the pitch.

For Jean de Villiers, a man who captained the South African Springboks in 37 of his 109 Tests, this theory has some weight behind it.

“Everyone in sport is motivated by different factors and we all play for different reasons, even though the end goal (winning the match) might be the same,” de Villiers says. “Understanding who you’re playing with and what they have gone through to be in that position, you give more because you know his journey.”

De Villiers is a white Afrikaans male who says he lived a “fortunate life” and led a national team in a country where over 90% of the population were once regarded as secondary citizens based on the colour of their skin. Throw in the fact that the Springbok emblem on his chest still represented division and oppression to some South Africans - it is easy to get a sense of the unique challenge de Villiers faced.

The most capped South African centre of all time, having played over 109 tests for the green and gold and 54 of those games as captain, says he relished the opportunity to get to know his teammates on an intimate level. 

“I always tried to treat everyone in my team with the same amount of respect, engaging with them from their point of view. There were guys in the team who grew up hungry or from poor households, so being there was a victory in itself. The background of a diverse group can become a motivating factor for the rest because we draw inspiration from them. That helped me become a better captain of the Springboks and a better ambassador of the country.”

Clearly diversity has its advantages, but as de Villiers admits, the challenge lies in pulling everyone in the same direction. After all, with different and potentially contrasting worldviews within a squad, a leader needs to be as malleable as possible. This is not always easy.

“It’s extremely difficult leading a diverse team, which is why whenever we made a decision that would impact the team, we ensured we had buy-in from everyone involved. Nothing must be forced upon anyone, we set the norm early and made sure that everyone knew what was expected of them. That way if someone stepped out of line, they were breaking their own rules.”

Despite this, de Villiers is adamant that the experience of leading a multicultural team in a multicultural country, was a wholly positive experience. “The world is changing and maybe here in South Africa, we have an advantage over other countries that have one main culture,” he says. “When you’re constantly pulled out of your comfort zone, you’re forced to think outside the box. That definitely impacted how we performed on the field.

Another global sporting icon and leader, found himself outside of his comfort zone. Gary Kirsten, the former opening batsman for the national cricket side who, in 2008 was appointed as head coach of the world cup winning Indian national team.

In 2008, Kirsten had never coached a senior cricket team before, he was heading into a completly different environment in a completely different part of the world. On his first day in charge, Kirsten learnt a valuable lesson that shaped the rest of his stint on the subcontinent.

“I walked in and immediately set up a powerpoint presentation that was going to outline my plan to take this team forward. After only a few minutes, the guys had completely lost interest. I realised from that point, If I was going to impose a South African culture and way of doing things, on Indian players, I would have blown myself out of the water in no time.”

Kirsten, who won the World Cup with India in 2011, explains that the art of leadership lies in the ability to influence people. But before you can influence another human being, you need to gain their trust, however, that cannot be achieved unless you engage with them on their own terms.

Kirsten credits Paddy Upton (current Head Coach of the IPL Team - Delhi Daredevils and his assistant during his stint with India) for helping him tamper his natural instinct to be a 'brash, egotistical South African' and to manage his own emotions before engaging with one of his players.

South African sports teams, particularly rugby and cricket, are known to be hotbeds of hyper masculinity and bravado. Straight talking captains lead aggressive and hard-nosed players that take it to the opposition. Fast bowlers, burly forwards, big hits and strong arms; this is the South African way and Kirsten needed to reel that in.

“The major advantage you have as a foreign coach (once you understand that you’re in a new environment) is your naivety, I've slipped many times, but I always had a slight buffer whenever I did, because the guys would say, ''well, he’s not Indian so he doesn’t entirely understand our ways''. That naivety allowed me to focus on my work and to communicate through the common language of cricket.”

There is logic to Kirsten’s sentiments. Social gaffs are inevitable when venturing into a different culture, but the more alien you are to an environment, the more likely you’ll be forgiven for the odd transgression. Of course repeated mistakes will not be tolerated, but naivety creates a buffer zone for a foreign leader.

“Truthfully I found the Indian job much easier than the South African one in this way. Because I was naïve to the cultural demands of the Indian player,s I didn’t get caught up in the issues that exist around the environment. In South Africa, I had reference points and didn’t have any leeway with regards to making a social mistake. It just would not have been tolerated - I had context and couldn’t rely on naivety.”

Cricket South Africa are on the verge of appointing a new head coach for the national side (The Proteas) and a foreign candidate has emerged to take the lead in the race for the top job. Ottis Gibson, a former West Indian fast bowler, who is currently employed as England’s bowling coach, is being touted as the next man in charge. For Kirsten, this would be a step in the right direction.

“I’m in favour of a foreign coach, an opinion that flies in the face of most South African sports fans. Our last foreign coach was Bob Woolmer and he was fantastic! The context of South African cricket has become more complex, than when Bob was leading the team and I was playing under him. The goal posts are constantly moving and sometimes it is difficult to see where they’re moving to, if you’re standing right in the middle. A foreign coach would be able to just get on with the job.”

Whether or not you agree that a foreign coach holds a certain advantage over a local contemporary, it is plain that both de Villiers and Kirsten have similar views on leadership. Both assert that the role of any leader is to find a method that will bring the best out of people. Without saying it, both Kirsten and de Villiers speak of a formula to leadership, which is the blueprint to success.

First you need to understand who you are leading. What are their motives? Why are they in this line of work? What are the pressures that they put on themselves and what pressures are put on them from their own environment? Next you need to tap into those motives and fuel those flames while at the same time tempering their fears and anxieties.

There is no one size fits all approach to leadership. Each person is unique and therefore will need a different style. Understanding the cultural carrots and sticks of the individual beneath you, will ensure that you have their buy-in when you ask them to dig deep and produce on the field.

Both Gary and Jean will be presenting at the 2017 Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town. Please click to see more: www.elitesportsummit.com