3 Lessons From Australia’s Ashes Success

Well isn’t this the summer of cricket that just keeps on giving.

Not only did we get to watch five test matches that were peppered with scintillating, career defining performances, we also have the opportunity to learn some very important, practical business lessons from that success; lessons that have the potential to make this year our most successful yet.

First, let’s throw to the elephant in the room. All too often, team and leadership development practitioners like myself draw on sporting analogies – often painfully strained – in a lame attempt to either capture the attention of our audience or to indulge our own sporting passions. In my case, it’s both.

The good news, however, is that in this particular situation there are three genuinely valuable things we can learn from captain Michael Clarke and his ten team mates. Even as they drink their highly visible, sponsored beer.

(Cleverly, the three lessons I speak of are coded into the above paragraph)

Lesson 1 – The Power to Lead

During this Ashes series, Michael Clarke elevated his status as the captain of the Australian cricket team by expanding his power base. He gave his teammates more reasons to follow him.

Without followers, leaders are…well, they’re not leaders. They are something else. Like Christmas without presents or handlebars without a bike. Whatever the analogy, it’s an easy concept to understand.

‘Managers’ are appointed; part of the hierarchy. The role of manager comes automatically with direct reports. Mostly they don’t have a choice. The organisational chart just says so.

‘Leadership’ is a different story. People choose to be led. They choose to follow people who have power.

Of course there are different types of power. Phsychologists John French and Bertram Raven, way back when Richie Benaud was captain of the Australian cricket team, conducted a study that divided leadership power into five distinct forms.

The 5 forms of power are split into two categories:
Positional (legitimate, coercive and reward); and
Personal (referent and expert).

Most leaders draw from multiple sources of power, to different degrees, at different times.

In terms of French and Raven’s model, Clarke began his captaincy with a strong showing in two forms of power.

Clarke had legitimate power – by way of his appointment to the position in March 2011. The captaincy of the Australian Cricket team is often (perhaps jokingly) referred to the as the second most prominent position in Australia. And we have a history of picking and sticking with our national captain for the long term. In 137 years of test cricket, Australia has had just 43 test captains – which, when compared to England’s 79 over the same period, means the legitimacy of that power packs quite a punch.

Secondly, he had what French and Raven would call expert power. He was an exceptional individual performer as a batsman.

Averaging a world class 49.97 runs prior to being appointed captain, Clarke thrived even more as captain, averaging 64.42 – a number only bettered by two players in the history of test cricket: Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara (69.61) and some bloke called Don.

So which form of power did Clarke add to his kit bag during the most recent Ashes series? Referent power: perceived attractiveness; worthiness; the right to respect.

He achieved this in a very public, confrontational manner when he stood up for his teammates. In the moment he backed up his star fast bowler, Mitchel Johnson, by telling James Anderson to:

face up and expect a f#^*ing broken arm

he won over his teammates in the most resounding way.*

Sure, he received a hefty fine for bringing the game into disrepute (the comment was picked up by the stump microphones and broadcast through homes across the cricketing world) and drew the ire of some non-chest beating, presumably occasional cricket watchers. But none of that mattered within the dynamics of the team.

In the team context, Clarke sent a very clear message: ‘Not only am I the chosen one by cricket Australia (legitimate power), not only am I the best batsman since The Don (expert power), I am also a leader who has got your back and will stand up for you no matter the consequences for me (referent power).

The ‘broken arm’ incident happened in the first of the five tests after a heated exchange between Johnson and Anderson. For the rest of the series confidence and camaraderie oozed from the Australian players.
They were being led by a man they wanted to follow.

So what about your leadership? From where do you garner your power to lead? Why would anyone in your team choose to follow you? Do you rely too heavily on one or two forms of power? Or are you a well-rounded leader, drawing your power from multiple sources?

* Need I point out here that using threatening language like that would not be acceptable in the workplace? Context is the key here.

Lesson 2 – Team Stability

During this Ashes series the Australian team remained completely unchanged over the five tests. The confidence that stability instilled in the players allowed them to thrive as a complementary unit.

The death of the controversial rotation policy coincided with the re-birth of Australian cricket. Coincidence?

The fact that Australia used only 11 players through the five test series (compared with England’s 18) had a visible impact on the way they played the game.

Players looked relaxed, willing to back their talent and play their natural game. They were not looking over their shoulder, wondering if they would be playing the next game or if they would be the one to get the chop. They were not worried about who might take their place. They did not play as individuals. They played as a team.

A luxury of a winning team perhaps? Is it a chicken? Or is it an egg?

The implications of such job security are profound and practical.

During the last series – played in England in the winter of 2013 when it seemed as though most Aussies got a game – we rarely heard an interview in which an Australian player talked of the importance of bowling partnerships.

This series barely an interview went by, after another dominant performance in the field, in which a player didn’t refer to ‘bowling partnerships’.

There is no better a litmus test for the health of team dynamics. The bowling partnership phenomenon means that a player who happens to take the wicket is not necessarily the one who bowled the unplayable ball. It means that quality was coming at both ends, by all bowlers, thus building the pressure on the batsman.

During this series, players being lorded for their bowling figures were quick to spread the credit across their team mates – other bowlers and the quality of the fielding. A true team performance.

This simply does not happen in a group of individuals concerned about their place in the team.

Before the death of the rotation policy players were so concerned about their own future they played as individuals. They tried to take wickets themselves, with every ball, rather than building pressure, trusting that the batsman would fall to someone eventually.

This series it didn’t matter who actually took the wicket. In the past, it mattered big time.

Australian player Brad Haddin said the death of the rotation policy took the anxiety out of the dressing room.

We knew a long way out from the first test what the team would be. It was a settled side weeks out from the first test. It’s created an environment where you’re able to talk cricket and allowed to make mistakes. It took all the anxiety out of our preparation.

So how’s this relevant to the business environment?

It’s a simple lesson in stability. People – sportsman, engineers, miners, software developers – will always perform better when they feel comfortable and secure in their environment. They will try new things, back their talent, skill and intellect, resulting in their best work.

This Ashes series was a colourful illustration of what team members can do if they are not looking over their shoulder wondering when they will be moved on.

Obviously changes within organisations are unavoidable. Just like they are in sport. As successful as this Australian cricket team have been this summer, no one expects that team to stay the same forever. Players will come in and out of form. Different conditions will demand a different plan and different players to execute that plan. Players will retire.

But change for change sake is destructive. It damages confidence, creates uncertainty and promotes individualism.

Teams thrive when they have time to get to know each other, understand the strengths and weaknesses of their team mates, develop methods of communication that compliment their skills, develop trust for each other, and work for mutual success.

Lesson 3 – Celebrate Success

At the end of each of the five winning test matches, Australian players made it abundantly clear that they were looking forward to celebrating their success.

One of the most powerful lessons teams in the corporate world can learn from their sporting counterparts is the importance of celebrating success. Sporting teams at all levels intuitively understand the importance of enjoying their achievements.

Watching the Australian cricket this summer I was filled with joy: joy for myself as a fan having endured six years of dominance at the hands of the English; joy for the players having worked so hard, worn so much public criticism and personal doubt; and joy for all the teams I’ll work with in 2014 because this powerful concept – the importance of celebrating success – will be my mantra for the year.

So what’s the trick to celebrating success in the business world?

Firstly, one of the elements to being able to celebrate success is to know when you have achieved it. For sporting teams success is often black and white. You win the game, the series or the season. Or you don’t.

Though even in the world of sports measuring success is not totally black and white. For some teams winning the premiership is not the definition of success – doing better than last season was the goal.

For teams in the workplace, knowing when to celebrate is often the trickiest part. So much of what we do is evolving, or never ending, we don’t all work on project teams that have a clear beginning and end.

To be able to celebrate success the team needs to know what the objectives are. Every team member should be able to finish the sentence: this team will have succeeded when…

Business plans and strategy documents are not enough. Of course they have their place, but when it comes to teams measuring the essence of their performance, they are too long term, too general and often intangible.

Teams need to understand their goals and objectives so they know when to celebrate.

Strange as it may sound, teams should be as committed to celebrating success as they are to the work they do.

As any fan of Australian cricket knows, there is a long and powerful tradition of celebration within the dressing room. One member of the team is charged with leading the team song. No one in the team can leave the dressing room until the song has been sung. When the song is sung it is done so with gusto and passion.

Currently the honour of leading the team song belongs to Nathan Lyon. It is a responsibility that is passed down from generation to generation. When Lyon departs the team, he will choose his successor and the tradition will continue.

So often in the workplace there is no ritual around celebration, nothing to look forward to when goals are achieved, if we even know when we’ve achieved a goal.

On occasions when workplaces know they’ve achieved a significant milestone, the boss in his benevolence may announce, ‘let’s go out for a drink after work to celebrate. My shout.’ Some members of the team go along, some make their excuses.

The message here is: do the work in work time, but celebrate in your time.

Why not celebrate in work time? Celebrating the success of a team provides and opportunity to reflect on the effort and sacrifice that led to the success. It makes those same sacrifices more digestible next time round – in pursuit of the next objective. Recognition of that effort and achievement is essential to the on-going success of the team. It allows team members an opportunity to bond at a personal level, tell stories from the trenches. It builds trust and camaraderie.

Celebrating in work time is not a cost; it’s an investment in the ongoing success of the team.

Of course choosing the method of celebrating team achievements takes some thought. It’s important that no one is excluded. Believe it or not, some people don’t like to drink, drive go-carts or play golf.

But if you give your team an opportunity to think about something they’d all enjoy doing together I bet they’ll come up with something that hits the mark.

How well do you and your team celebrate your success? Do you even know when you’ve done something worth celebrating?

So thank you Michael Clarke and the rest of the Australian cricket team. Not only have you thrilled and entertained us this summer, you have taught us three powerful lessons that have the potential to make us all more effective leaders and better team players:

  1. The power to lead — leaders who draw on multiple sources of power have more committed followers.
  2. Team stability — teams who are secure in their role thrive by taking more risks, building camaraderie and developing effective team dynamics.
  3. Celebrate success — having clear goals and taking the time to celebrate team achievements builds momentum and helps develop a healthy team culture.

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