Lessons in Leadership and Cricket

"I think playing cricket taught me more about working in teams and leadership that has stayed with me throughout my career.” Satya Nadella :CEO /Microsoft

Lessons in leadership

Roopen Roy

Shri Prasanta Kumar Mallik, a towering former President of The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, passed away two weeks ago. He was a mentor of mine. Many of his disciples met together and asked themselves –what did we learn from him? To appreciate what he was like, one should know a little about his career and colourful personality.

A stalwart of the accounting profession, he rose to the rank of a Senior Partner in the very British firm of Price Waterhouse, which was set up in Calcutta more than a hundred years ago. While many of his peers wore dark suits inside the air-conditioned, teak-panelled cabins of the firm, he preferred a white, cotton bush shirt which was more appropriate to the sweltering heat of Calcutta.

He was different from his peers in many other ways. He had a vast reservoir of anecdotes and was a great story-teller. If you were fortunate to be in his company, there was never be a dull moment. He became the Sheriff of Calcutta. He played a major role in Satyajit Ray’s movie “Simabaddha” (Company Limited). He was fondly called PKM (his initials) by one and all who knew him.

Followers watch their leaders carefully. They keenly observe not so much what a leader says but what he does. PKM was an audit partner in the classical mould. He approached his work more as a skilled craftsman than as a clever professional. He took immense pride in workmanship. In his books, success was measured by how soundly and thoroughly an audit was performed. It was not accounted by how much money was made. His followers knew that.

On one occasion, we decided to exit from a major client. Giving up a client is never easy. Knowing that the client was skating on thin ethical ice, PKM did not blink. He explained to me later that the most valuable asset of a professional firm is its reputation. “Reputation is like fine bone china. You must handle it with great care. If you let it drop, it will smash to smithereens. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men –will not be able to put it together again”. Failure to take tough decisions on time have proven expensive for professional firms. Tough decisions, guided by a moral compass, more than anything else, protect a firm’s reputation.

An outstanding leader can be spotted by the company he keeps. If he is surrounded by sycophants, he is not a true leader. No one will follow him on a risky mission or walk through the fire for him. His powers will crumble when he no longer has his title. A great leader, on the other hand, attracts, like a magnet, talented people.

A leader, who is unsure of himself or is a patron-saint of mediocrity, never succeeds in creating an institution of excellence. Because he refuses to hire folks who are smarter than him. He ends up with a team of moral dwarfs and intellectually challenged people. PKM believed in hiring the brightest and the best. For every success, he gave his team more credit than was due to them. Not many of his peers in the profession did the same. They were revered, respected and feared. But PKM was a rare leader who was loved. Followers go that extra mile only for a leader they love.

Last week, Saurav Ganguly delivered the Tiger Pataudi Memorial Lecture. His lessons on captaincy and leadership had a couple of themes that resonated with me as the style of a leader in a different field. Ganguly’s secret sauce was not a superior strategy or a game plan. It hinged on talent, trust, transparency and teamwork.

His objective was very clear. He wanted the Indian team to win. The first and the most important step was to pick the best team. The second step as to be transparent with the team, repose trust in them and motivate them to win. There was no third step.

When asked about strategy, here was Saurav’s response , “I personally never believed in strategy. You cannot plan things. Captaincy is an on-the-field job. I give you this example. It was in 1997 during the Sri Lanka tour, Sanath Jayasuriya was hammering us right, left and centre. And then in one of the team meetings, Venkatesh Prasad said he would get rid of Jayasuriya. We had a plan ready and Sachin, who was the captain then, gave the new ball to Prasad. And the first ball he hit it over square leg for a six. Next day I told Sachin that we had enough of team meetings let’s play one match without any. And Srinath got Jayasuriya early. During my tenure as India captain, it was all about letting people do things on their own. That was my strategy. And I think it paid off.”

The world of business, like the game of cricket, is full of uncertainties and imponderables. In cricket, it is the pitch, the weather, the wind, the mood of teams, the form and class of the players, the fate of the toss, the attitude of the spectators, the decision of the umpires and the luck of the captain, of course! In business, it is the inflation, the exchange rate, the price of oil, the action of competitors, the role of regulators, disruption from innovation, natural disasters, political turmoil and the growth of the economy. There are many grey swans and variables that cannot be predicted. Some events are even outside the control of the enterprise. In the face of such uncertainties, if you can pick the best team, trust and motivate them to do their best, that may be a good first step. After that, you play ball by ball and transaction by transaction.

(Views expressed are personal)