Home / Opinion / What makes for an exceptional leader

A few weeks ago, Shane Warne, Australian cricketing legend and arguably the best bowler ever, during the filming of television reality show I’m a Celebrity, took a swipe at his former captain Steve Waugh. Warne called Waugh the “most selfish cricketer" he has ever played with. It came as a surprise. But it reminded me of a story narrated by a friend close to the Australian team when Waugh was the captain.

Some of you may recall Warne and Adam Gilchrist made a deadly combination of bowler and wicket-keeper. What most people don’t know is that Warne and Gilchrist weren’t on talking terms. But that didn’t colour Waugh’s vision of how to build a team for the future—one that will continue to win long after he would not be around.

Waugh saw the potential in these two superstars as integral to a champion team. He needed the both of them to contribute. The thing is, Warne can be a handful to manage. But Waugh did a great job of keeping him calm and getting him to perform at his highest level. It is entirely possible the younger generation who now follow cricket don’t know much about Waugh. But everybody talks fondly of the legendary prowess of Warne. However, this is not because of Warne, but because Waugh set things in motion. He wasn’t interested in being on the popularity charts. He was a man on a mission.

Justin Langer, the Australian cricket legend, wrote fondly of Waugh: “Steve was a leader for the people—he instilled confidence and made you believe because he himself believed anything was possible. Steve often challenged the group to be its own captain, to think for yourself and on your feet. He would convince you that every step you take on the field should be in a forward direction. So you make up your own minds. Does this wreak (sic) of selfish man?"

So what is it about Waugh that makes him such a great leader?

Reason #1: He is decisive

The first question we ought to ask is, why did Warne call Waugh “the most selfish cricketer" he ever played with? One of the reasons Warne cited was that he was excluded from a crucial Test match against the West Indies in 1999.

A few days after Warne’s comment, Waugh explained why he did it: “Making tough decisions like the one I had to make in Antigua 17 years ago are part and parcel of a captain’s role."

Reporting on l’affaire Warne versus Waugh, The Guardian reported all of what transpired and the reasons Waugh did what he did: Warne was then the vice-captain and “was still struggling to produce his best form on the 1999 tour to the West Indies after undergoing surgery on his shoulder".

“To be fair," The Guardian reported Waugh as saying, “not only Shane, it wasn’t easy to tell them they were dropped….It wasn’t easy telling Adam Dale he was dropped for a Test match or Greg Blewett. There were a number of players I had to tell they weren’t playing... Andy Bichel.

“As a captain that is the hardest thing to do. But it’s also why you’re captain, because people expect you to make the tough decisions for the benefit of the team. You have got to do that at times and you have got to be prepared not to be liked by everyone."

The Guardian report concludes: “Without the leg-spinner in their line-up, Australia won the match by 176 runs to draw the series 2-2 and retain the Frank Worrell trophy."

Waugh’s leadership philosophy is summed up by what he said during Australia’s tour of England in 2015: “The minute you hesitate you are in trouble."

Reason #2: He challenges himself

In writing about Waugh on the eve of his retirement, Simon Barnes, the chief sports writer at The Times in London, describes the man who led Australia in 15 of their world-record 16 consecutive Test wins: “Waugh wants to defeat you personally—but nothing personal, if you see what I mean. He has that air possessed by very few, even at the highest level of sport: that sense of vocation, that urge to beat not the opposition but the limitations of your self, your game, your world. There was something of that unearthly quality in Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian racing driver. Ellen MacArthur, the British sailor, has it too."

“…A captain is usually assessed on the way he operates his bowlers and sets his field, for it is supposed to be the fielding captain who controls the tempo of a match. Waugh is, of course, spectacularly good at all that. But it is the way he manages his batting line-up that is revolutionary."

“…Most non-Australian cricket followers would admit when pressed that they can’t always tell one Australian batsman from another. They all wear green helmets with the Australian coat of arms above the grille, they are all good, they are all vindictively aggressive towards anything loose, they are all hugely confident. They bat as a unit and there’s always another one waiting to destroy you."

So much so that the phrase “to play like Australians" has come to be a short code to represent these qualities. The stamina to keep running till you reach the goal, the strength to push on even when everything seems to be going against you, laced with the vindictive aggression and outsized confidence. Corporate leaders use the phrase to describe the ability of their team to win businesses come what may, and execute them against all odds. In one word, it’s the drive. It’s also the quality that seemed to be missing at Mohali on Sunday, when Australian team succumbed to India’s cool counter-attack.

Reason #3: He is curious

Waugh, a believer in the virtues of getting out of your comfort zone, tries to learn from others. He immerses himself in the environment, accepts the situation for what it is and then adjusts himself. A legend that continues to do the rounds is around Warne when he was touring India. He disliked Indian food and made that known to the team coach Geoff Marsh. Marsh called up Cricket Australia and told them, “The boys need some baked beans and spaghetti to put on their toast in the mornings." Soon after the request was made public, 1,900 cans of baked beans were shipped by Warne’s Australian fans so that their boys may have some decent home-cooked food.

Waugh thought that it was an awful thing to do. That is why he encouraged players to get out of their comfort zones when they visit countries in South Asia like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Waugh told them that until they got out of the comfort zone that is their five-star hotel rooms and soak in the ambience, they will not grow into better people or better players.

When Waugh retired from Test cricket, Gideon Haigh wrote in The Guardian: “This (interest in foreign cultures) began as a method of optimising performance. ‘Teams get into trouble overseas when all they do is sit around in their hotel rooms,’ Waugh has said. ‘You’ve got to enjoy touring or it’s going to become a chore. I really think that’s been the secret of my success away from Australia, that I’ve learned to go out and enjoy the places I’ve been, which means that you’re not so focused on how homesick you are or what your form is like.’"

On the back of his urging, the Australians could take on anybody on their home turfs.

Reason #4: He can see beyond himself

A good leader is someone who has a purpose and stands by a certain set of values. This shows through not just in his professional career, but in what he spends time on personally as well.

Through all of his career, he maintained the stance: “If you don’t help people who are in need, it’s just not cricket."

That is why he helps raise funds for children afflicted with leprosy in Kolkata. Then there is the Steve Waugh Foundation that he set up in Australia to help families of children afflicted with rare disorders. He is married with three children and as early as 2005, was named Australian Father of the Year, an award bestowed by his government to exceptional people for demonstrating support, love and guidance to children.

Reason #5: He seeks counsel

Leaders always have their council, whether it is by design or not. Remember the movie Lion King? Mufasa, the king, had Zazu a red-billed hornbill and Rafiki, a baboon, who helped him take the decisions. Not that Mufasa needed much of it. He was a seasoned leader.

Scar, Mufasa’s jealous younger brother, on the other hand, had Shenzi, Banzai and Ed, three spotted hyenas, who really didn’t care about either Scar or the kingdom. They just wanted to get their hands on their next meal. If given an opportunity, they would have replaced Scar with themselves at the very top of the food chain.

And then you have Simba, Mufasa’s son, whose biggest weakness was that he was afraid. He simply didn’t have it in him to face a situation He chose to run away when confronted by Scar’s hyena trio. That is, until he chanced upon happy go lucky Timon and Pumbaa, who lived in the moment, content with life. They didn’t understand what it took to be a leader. Until Simba met Nala, his long lost best friend who showed him the right path.

Waugh knew that though Warne and he were team mates, they could never be friends. That is why he sought solace and counsel from one of the greatest Indian batsman of all time—Rahul Dravid. They bonded during a one day international in 1998. Waugh could see “Rahul wanted that extra edge that would elevate his game to the next level, and at the Adelaide Oval he completed his journey". On his part, Dravid says of Waugh: “He is someone who valued his wicket…Steve appeared to relish the big occasion and thrive in such situations."

The right path is almost never the easy path. The path the leader chooses determines if he is worthy of the leadership role he assumed in the first place. It doesn’t matter much if you don’t have the courage to take the road less travelled. And that is all of what Steve Waugh exemplifies.

With inputs from N.S. Ramnath.

Read an unabridged version on

Rajat Chauhan is the founder of Back 2 Fitness chain of clinics and La Ultra-The High, a 333 km ultra marathon in Ladakh. Charles Assisi is co-founder and director, Founding Fuel.

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