This piece was originally published on LondonlovesBusiness.com.
The former England cricket captain tells us what he’s learnt about being in charge
Cricket has been in the headlines this week – for all the wrong reasons. Accusations of bullying, bickering and in-fighting within the England team have been flying around the sport after the release of former England batsman Kevin Pietersen’s controversial autobiography.
Andrew Strauss has mostly managed to stay out of it thus far (but rumour has it, he’s got an interview appearing in a Sunday paper this weekend) and he’s focussing instead on business.
Widely credited as one of England’s most successful cricket captains, Strauss’ retirement from the sport has allowed him to launch business consultancy Mind Flick – whose name comes from the necessity to look at problems from a different perspective in order to solve them, Strauss says.
The former batsman spoke to top businesspeople at an event run by branding agency Brand Union about the leadership lesson’s he’s learnt in cricket.
LondonlovesBusiness.com caught up with him afterwards and asked him about the challenges of leadership in a high pressure environment and dealing with strong personalities on a team.
What’s it like leading big personalities?
The first thing to say is that you want strong personalities in a team, especially in international cricket, people are under a lot of pressure. You want people who are not going to be inhibited by that pressure and are actually going to stand up and perform when you need them to, so you need guys with a bit of something about them in order to do that. Sometimes I think there’s this myth that all teams need to get on brilliantly, a kind of Waltons myth – that you need to be like the Waltons if you want to perform well as a team – that couldn’t be further from the truth. You actually want a degree of conflict at times - you want people to feel comfortable enough to say their opinion. But you also want them to be very united by a common purpose and my philosophy was that as long as people were moving in the right direction, as long as they weren’t undermining our team environment, then I’d like to work with anyone. If they are undermining the team environment it’s a problem.
How difficult is it to balance being a confident leader and also taking into account what members of the team think? People might not always agree with you…
There’s a fallacy that strong leadership is about being right all the time. Actually strong leadership is admitting you don’t have all the answers sometimes, and encouraging other people to think a bit as well. I always think probably the best leaders are those that understand their own strengths and weaknesses the best and don’t pretend to be all things to all people. And so once you do that you’re far more open to listening to what people have got to say.
There are often disagreements and bickering within a team – as a leader, how involved do you get with those?
You can’t intervene in every disagreement that happens within a team. But if it comes to a time where you feel that disagreement might be undermining the culture of the team then it’s a problem, and you might have to get stuck in. Teams that have no conflict are often the worst teams because they’re teams that don’t trust each other enough to be able to voice their opinions. So conflict is a good thing as long as it’s well-meaning and it’s all coming from a starting point of ‘how do we get better and how do we improve?’
What makes a good leader?
A good leader is someone who has a strong vision of where he wants to the team to go and helps people get there, rather than drives them there.
You’ve spoken about the importance of having empathy with your team – do you think very successful businesses generally have a lack of empathy with their staff?
I would argue that a lot of good businesses have a lot of empathy, I just worry about the idea that you have to play up to being a leader. People think there’s a certain way of being a leader which is about never being wrong and always knowing which way to go and driving people and being stern and fierce. That’s not leadership actually. That’s the worst sort of leadership as far as I’m concerned. Good leaders have empathy and care deeply about the people they’re leading. My philosophy is that if you care about them, they’re more likely to want to be led by you.
Is there anyone with a differences management style to you that you admire?
The people I admire most actually in business are the disrupters – the people who change the face of the industry that they’re involved with. So you’re looking at the likes of Richard Branson and Steve Jobs and more recently [inventor and Tesla and PayPal co-founder] Elon Musk – people like that who are just able to see a different way of doing things and bring that into fruition. Those guys are exciting to look at and they do it in a very different way to how I would do it. But I think you always look for attributes you would want to have but you don’t necessarily have yourself and those guys are all true visionaries.
Knowing what you know now about leadership and taking into account your experience, are there things you would change about when you first became captain of the England team?
To start with I wouldn’t have been as concerned about looking like a leader. I think I would have spent a bit more time understanding the different personality types we had in the team. I think sometimes it’s easy to tar everyone with the same brush - that’s probably the wrong way of describing it - but you feel like if you treat everyone the same, then at least everyone thinks it’s fair, but actually we’re all unique and you need to be treated differently.
What personality types do you look for in a team?
People who are prepared to give - you have givers and takers. Also people who are willing to buy into the team thing and put themselves second. I’ve always genuinely admired those sorts of people and those are the guys that are invaluable to any team environment.
Thanks for your time Andrew!