When it comes to leadership styles, there couldn’t be a bigger contrast between the current Indian national cricket team captain Virat Kohli and his predecessor Mahendra Singh Dhoni. While the latter has built his reputation for calmness under the most intense of pressure situations, the former remains one of the most aggressive leaders on the cricket field.
Dhoni rose to prominence with a sledgehammer of a bat, smashing bowlers all over the park. However, apart from his attacking batting, Dhoni is tranquillity personified. Some of the best moments from his 15-year long international career are typified by a zen-like calm.
Take, for example, India’s tour of Australia in 2008-09. Ricky Ponting’s all-conquering Australians were at the top of their game and took great pride in not just vanquishing their opponents through actual play but also made it a point to rile them with incessant sledging. Dhoni, in his quintessential style, barred his team from reacting to the hosts’ provocations. In Bharat Sundaresan’s book The Dhoni Touch, the author quotes one of the wicket-keeper’s close friends as saying, “He (Dhoni) doesn’t believe in overt displays of aggression. He believes that if you want to hurt them, do it in your style, not in their way."
When the long-serving wicket-keeper batsman made way for the younger crop to take over the team’s leadership, the responsibility fell on Kohli. A batting maverick and, like Dhoni, a modern-day great, but unlike the 37-year-old former captain, Kohli , 30, brings a very different style of leadership to his team.
Brash, abrasive, confrontational, are just some of the adjectives used to describe the current Indian skipper. His demeanour is of a kind that Indian cricket has hardly, if at all, seen. The Delhi batsman’s personality was in full view during the recently concluded tour of Australia. He has often been in the face of the hosts, renowned for their mastery of some of the darker arts of the game. As if lashing with his tongue was not enough, he even got in the face of the Australian skipper Tim Paine during the Test series, leading the umpires to intervene and temper things down.
Contrasting styles notwithstanding, both Dhoni and Kohli have been hugely successful as captains. While the former led India to two World Cup triumphs, the latter recently captained the team to their first ever Test series win in Australia, a feat they achieved in their 11th attempt spanning 71 years.
Despite their divergent styles—Dhoni’s zen-like calm to Kohli’s in-your-face aggression—they both command great respect. Siddharth Deshmukh, who works closely with Dhoni on his brand management and is managing partner at sports management consulting firm Arimaya Ventures, feels that the two captains have “earned" respect. “They have led from the front and given confidence to their team that they can take on anyone in any condition, and if the players are true to themselves and their game, results will follow," he says. Deshmukh draws parallels with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his Apple counterpart Steve Jobs. “Gates is known for his genial nature, while there were always shades of aggression in the way Steve Jobs conducted Apple. At the end of the day, both commanded respect with relentless work."
One common refrain among successful individuals is that they compete against themselves. It is a sentiment that especially resonates with the millennial workers, who no longer aspire just for the corner office but possess multiple aspirations, from bettering their 5K timings to improving ballroom dancing skills.
Deshmukh says, it’s the same ethos that has served Dhoni and Kohli so well. “The most important thing is, they both are secure in their skins and they know what they are capable of. They are not competing with anyone else but with themselves and that makes them supremely confident in whatever they do."
Another lesson to learn from the Dhoni-Kohli duo is transitioning of leadership. If not planned well, it can set a team back considerably. The differences in leadership styles can upset team dynamics as we saw in the case of the Tata Group, a few years back during Ratan Tata-Cyrus Mistry standoff. The period of succession was a turbulent one for the conglomerate.
Deshmukh says, “Leaders infuse their own attitudes in their teams and define the way a team conducts itself." The team members’ belief in the leader is vital for collective success, and both Dhoni and Kohli have been successful in convincing the team of their vision.
The groundbreaking successes of both Dhoni and Kohli will ensure that they inspire legions, and Deshmukh believes, it will be important to strike a balance between aggression and calmness to succeed. However, he feels Kohli will likely inspire more followers, but adds a caveat: “Aggression can be acquired but calmness needs to be practised and that’s the difference aspiring leaders need to understand."
Fielding Leadership is a series that draws lessons from sporting events for managers.