August 1, 2014

How exactly does one 'lead by example'?

A captain needs to do enough as an individual to retain respect and control, but exceptional performances may not result in even greater influence

Are runs from a captain somehow more inspiring for the other players? © Getty Images

Leading by example. Does it really amount to much? I'm not sure how much store I put in it, but maybe that's because I'm not much inclined to follow anyone. I always seem to opt for being lost on my own rather than being led where I should be going by someone else.

My suspicion, therefore, is that "leading by example" is merely descriptive of the captain having played well, rather than being indicative of his having made any greater contribution beyond that. Is it just something people say when whoever's played well also happens to be the captain?

The term has been used a lot in recent times on those rare occasions when someone has felt moved to defend Alastair Cook's captaincy. He may not be tactically sophisticated, they say; he may not be a great orator; and he may sometimes appear to run out of ideas on the field; but what he can do is lead by example. The Test series victory in India is pointed at as being evidence of this and when he recently made 95 in the third Test against the same opposition, it was also taken by a few as somehow reinforcing his captaincy credentials.

But does this make much sense? Whether he should be doing the job or not, I don't see how Alastair Cook scoring runs has very much at all to do with his captaincy - they're different things. Run scoring is arguably the aspect of the job that has the least to do with leadership. Had he made all those runs in India and not been captain, he would have still been setting the tone for the batsmen who followed, and had he scored that 95 in Southampton and not been captain, he would have still put his side into a strong position.

One of the main pillars supporting the notion of leading by example is that runs from the captain are somehow more inspiring for the other players, but that implies some sort of inspiration shortfall in the first place. It's not like they're all lounging around a warehouse, slacking off. In that situation, the manager might feel the need to come in and get his or her hands dirty, picking and packing or whatever so that the rest of the workforce might feel guilty and start doing something. But England's batsmen are surely going to do their damnedest to score runs regardless of what the captain might achieve?

Maybe seeing a senior player fail would have an impact on newcomers' confidence, but someone like Cook doesn't cease to be a senior player just because he's not captain. Are the dressing-room shock waves really so much greater when Cook the captain fails versus a non-captaining Cook? The latter is not just an opener, setting the tone, but also one of the most experienced batsmen England has ever produced. He's a central figure anyway.

You can lead by example purely as a batsman - particularly an opening batsman - but this is a practical thing, rather than having anything to do with nebulous notions of passion and inspiration. If there's something worth following, it is a player's methodology where runs have been scored in difficult conditions. In this regard, it's obvious that younger players can learn from senior batsmen whether they're captain or not. Practical lessons don't gain in validity because of the teacher's job title.

That isn't to say that things don't work differently for captains, however, for it can be hard to govern from a position of weakness. It's not easy to criticise others when you're failing yourself - and criticism does of course fall under the captain's remit from time to time. Similarly, a "do as I say, not as I do" sort of attitude is liable to result in disloyalty, if not open rebellion.

This results in a lower threshold for performance and behaviour. A captain needs to do enough as an individual to retain respect and control, but exceptional performances don't result in even greater influence still. If you can keep people onside and speak from a position of relative strength, you are then in a position to lead. In essence, performance is an entry requirement, not a facet of the captaincy itself.

Even memorable "leading by example" innings such as Graeme Smith's twin double-hundreds in England fit with this, for they came in Smith's third and fourth Tests in charge. As a very young captain, not yet established in the team, he needed to do more than most to prove his worth to a coterie of older players. Once established, the primary value of any good performance was then purely and simply in the runs scored.

Inspirational, spirit-lifting qualities may result from any individual performance, but whether or not the player in question is captain seems of little significance. As a consequence, if all a leader brings to the job is "leading by example" then those in charge should perhaps think about moving them to the role of "talisman" before letting someone better qualified get on with all the practical stuff.

Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 3, 2014, 22:45 GMT

    so many ex-players say it matters, they have examples from real scenarios to back up what they say. where's your evidence?

  • John on August 3, 2014, 20:20 GMT

    Sports teams evolve a hierarchy in which everyone has to earn respect. Many factors go into this, but prowess at the game is the most important. Being high up the pecking order gives you a better chance of succeeding as a captain because the team will be more inclined to believe in you. And I don't agree that there is any limit to this factor - if you are an all time great , then the respect you will get will be even more.

    Respect does not make a complete captain of course but it is a wonderful start. If you can add judgement it, you have it cracked.

  • ian on August 3, 2014, 6:37 GMT

    A captain needs to contribute significantly as a player, but he doesn't need to be the side's regular best performer with bat &/or ball. Indeed, a 'chipping in' is usually sufficient, especially if his side is successful. Where, however, he must be among the very best in his side is in the field. It is difficult to think of an effective captain who doesn't set a high standard there. Above all, the captain must be capable of rising to the moment; that's where he really earns his corn. The tight finish in the field will depend on his strategems -- manipulating his bowlers and setting fields that work towards victory, ball by ball. This is most clearly seen in Tests (where all cricketing skills are best appreciated) rather than in the restrictions imposed on format cricket. Then there's the true captain's innings, required to win or save a game, AGAINST THE ODDS. What is more inspiring than seeing your capt, batting at, say, #8 make the majority of the 50 runs needed for a great win?

  • Dummy4 on August 2, 2014, 13:28 GMT

    I think a captain can, infact , lead by example. For example the way Graeme smith started his innings while chasing 434.

  • Dummy4 on August 2, 2014, 3:07 GMT

    Now you think how much important it was being Andrew Strauss. He played 100 tests and 50 as captain and won 24 of them. Of course he had a strong side, but you need to demand certain degree of respect from your team ,which he did. Now its difficult seeing Anderson, Broad or Bell doing the same with Cook, since they are more senior to him. And Cook is short of runs as well which will situations more tricky.

  • Ross on August 1, 2014, 23:10 GMT

    Agree with this wholeheartedly. I hate the term "a captain's innings". It's a batsman's responsibility and duty to make runs. That doesn't alter with captaincy. The only time this changes is when a captain changes position for a purpose, like Dhoni in the World Cup Final. But once again, any batsman can take that extra responsibility and inspire others - it's not restricted to the captain...see Tendulkar being India's talisman despite not being captain.

    Any good performance by any player can inspire a team. A good captain is one who understands his players, draw the best out of them, and raises the team above the sum of its parts. That's why Brearley and Imran Khan are used as examples, but Steve Waugh and Dhoni fit into this category too.

    The other side is the technical aspect - tactics. Making plans and having them win out, and the ability ti make new plans during the course of play. See Mark Taylor and Stephen Fleming.

  • Art on August 1, 2014, 11:56 GMT

    It depends how important you think morale is for a cricket team.

    Having your captain - the man you're taking instructions from in the field - as a liability when batting is bad for morale, if he's supposed to be providing runs. People respond better when following someone they can look up to and who they think can protect them, which in the case of cricket a captain can usually do by scoring runs. People are uncertain when they're supposed to be following someone who is failing. This isn't news to anyone - it's fairly basic group dynamics.

    Psychological factors are real. The captain batting well is good for team spirit, and will produce better performances from others. That doesn't make him a better captain tactically, but it makes it easier for him to get the best out of the other ten players, which is just as important as the tactical side.

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