As a leader and a captain, you have to say things others don’t always want to hear
You have to try and find ways of integrating people without denying them their identities
In my book on cricket, The Art of Captaincy in 1985, just after I had retired from first-class cricket, I was trying to articulate some of the things I learnt (on how leadership translates from the cricket field to the boardroom). Someone asked me the definition of leadership and as they say in psychotherapy, it’s “comfort the trouble and trouble the comfortable”.
That sums up the essence of a tough life, of what one needs in leadership, captaincy, psychotherapy and parenting among others. You have to be able to say things to people that they don’t want to hear, from time to time, and make it relatively palatable to them. We have to be aware of how they experience it, how best to put it and detoxify it.
The difference between leadership in a workspace and in a cricket team is that in big companies, there is scale. The chief executive doesn’t know many of the people who work for him. He has to run his inner group, has to respect teams within the group and not break them up unnecessarily. He has the other job of presenting to the company at large, having a long-term vision, which he communicates in a more sort-of distant way.
Communication is not easy. When what leaders say goes out in the public, a lot can be taken out of context. It can be distorted. So leaders become cautious and uptight, particularly when they are being criticized a lot. Once things start to go downhill, then everything you do seems wrong—it’s the reason communication becomes a challenge.
You have to deal with things that go wrong for various reasons, including the difficulties of human relationships. You need systems in place and ways of dealing, which are tolerant and understanding as far as possible, but you have to draw lines too that are hard and clear. Sometimes that means getting rid of people...it’s a matter of listening as well as telling.
You have to be aware that there will be people whose state of mind is not being attended to, which is one of the reasons for Brexit, for example. So you have to be in touch with what they feel.
Whatever people’s colour or religion, the basic premise is the same: you have to try and find ways of integrating people without denying them their separate identities. Sometimes they work remarkably well, such as to form a single democracy, like in India, where it’s a daily miracle.
I don’t really know “millennials”—I might know them as colleagues or my children’s friends. I don’t think the workspace has changed that much because of them. There are changes to attention span and the speed with which you can get in touch with everyone or get messages across. A lot of it is for the good but a lot not for the good. Opinions can be worked up quickly and something else comes up. It must be exciting and disconcerting at the same time—that’s probably the difference.
You are bound to have a situation, even with your children or grandchildren or friends, where you find some people easier to relate to than others. For the leader, it’s important to appear to be fair.
Someone like (former England all-rounder) Ian Botham, for example—who was bowling, batting and doing it in lots of matches—doesn’t need to practice once the tour is under way, unlike everyone else. So you have to give players like him the freedom, and people can understand that.
Prominent British psychologist Wilfred Bion, who died in the 1970s, once said about a patient that it’s fascinating how boring this patient is. That’s a wise remark, which means you are interested in what was difficult about someone and if it’s something you can help the person with. A good leader has to reflect on what it is that irritates him about a person and find a way to address it.
You have to be tough enough not to be insecure (and surround yourself with smart people). But smartness is not the only asset—teamwork, diligence, empathy—you need all sorts of qualities within the organization.
Mike Brearley is a former England cricket captain, an author and a qualified psychoanalyst. He was in Mumbai for the Tata Literature Live. As told to Arun Janardhan.
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