September 12, 2012

The art of captaincy: catching the mood of the moment

Leadership of cricket teams involves a fair amount of a sort of luck

Alastair Cook will soon take the field for the first time as full-time captain of the England Test team. As is the case with every new leader, he has already been exposed to the judgement of innumerable pundits and armchair psychologists. Is he "a good captain", with the "right qualities to lead", and the "appropriate personality for the job"?

Captaincy is generally talked about in this way, as a list of personal qualities: charisma, resilience, bravery, nous, optimism, confidence and so on. And all those things are important in different ways.

But I am increasingly unconvinced that this mythic "natural captain" actually exists. I am unclear that the characteristics of a good captain can be identified and summarised in such a simplistic way. There is a second, vital part of the sentence "Is he a good captain?" that is usually omitted. It is this: "Is he a good captain for this team, at this moment?"

Captaincy is better understood as an effect rather than a set of skills. If the team is enhanced then the captain is doing a god job. But there is always an element of mystery - and unpredictability - about how that effect is achieved.

Richie Benaud's adage that "Captaincy is 90% luck, only 10% skill - but don't try it without the 10%" has become one of the famous lines in cricket. But it becomes even more interesting if we deconstruct what luck means in that context.

Yes, the luck of having strike bowlers. Yes, the luck of leading a strong side. But there is a subtler way that luck informs the career of every captain: the luck of having the right personality to lead that particular group; the luck of taking the reins at just the right time in the team's evolution; the luck of accidentally possessing a character that suits the nature of the challenge and the mood of the times.

Few people picked out Nasser Hussain as a natural captain. As Mike Atherton put it recently: "When Alec Stewart resigned from the England captaincy, the ECB was surprised when Nasser Hussain, previously thought to be from the Pietersen school of selfishness, performed well at interview, before becoming a fine England captain."

The crucial point here is that Hussain was the right captain for those times. In 1999, England were languishing at the bottom of the Test rankings. It was not a moment for tactical flourishes and devil-may-care self-expression. Hussain's central assets were will power, directness and fighting instincts. They suited an England team that was searching for a simple and clear sense of direction. I heard some Australian cricketers of that era - players who belonged to one of the greatest teams in history - question whether Hussain was a "natural captain". Maybe Hussain wouldn't have been a natural captain of the best team in the world. But Hussain - just like Allan Border - was a natural captain of a team beginning the long road to recovery.

Michael Vaughan, inheriting a team that had long battled hard, could encourage England to play with more freedom and joy. The team was ready for a new mood, and Vaughan had the emotional intelligence to create it. Then, after an uncomfortably unsettled period, Andrew Strauss offered stability and understatement. In each case, the circumstances were as significant as the new man's temperament.

Instead of believing that "captains always behave in this way", Cook should wait until he has discovered what type of captaincy is required in this instance. That in turn requires the ability to resist being pigeonholed

Indeed, if Hussain, Vaughan and Strauss each completed the same personality test, I doubt they would have many characteristics in common. Vaughan is quick-thinking and intuitive; Strauss is measured and considered; Hussain is strong-willed and volcanic. So how can we possibly provide a meaningful answer to the question "What makes a good captain?"

The same point applies to business and politics. What makes a good CEO? What makes a good prime minister? Not a static list of qualities, but the right personality to fit the circumstances of the moment.

Sometimes the circumstances are outright impossible. The Conservative party that John Major inherited in 1990 was so hell-bent on its own self-destruction that it didn't matter who led them.

Margaret Thatcher thrived on the sense of righteous conflict - a just battle that had to be fought. In the intransigence of the trade unions, she found the ideal opposition. But postpone her career by just one decade and the job description had radically altered. The Tory party didn't know what it was looking for to follow Lady Thatcher, but it certainly wasn't another Lady Thatcher.

Tony Blair's triumphs at the polls make him the most successful electoral leader in the history of the Labour party. But had it not been for the party's desperation to win - after well over a decade in opposition - they would have been unlikely to turn to such a conservative-sounding leader. For all his political gifts, if Blair's career had not coincided with the moment when Labour was prepared to move to the centre, he wouldn't have reached the top.

As with the cricketers Hussain, Vaughan and Strauss, the politicians Thatcher, Major and Blair have remarkably different personalities. And yet, between them they governed for 28 consecutive years.

There is no static "right" personality for a leader. So a central strand of leadership is the ability to catch the mood of the moment. Ian Chappell did this. The restless, iconoclastic atmosphere of the 1960s fitted well with his personality. He might have found it much harder captaining during the more conservative mood of the Coronation tour in 1953.

In order to embody the expectations of those around you, a leader's optimal personality - far from being fixed in stone - needs, in fact, to be a mixture of strength and flexibility. Instead of believing that "captains always behave in this way", Cook should wait until he has discovered what type of captaincy is required in this instance. That in turn requires the ability to resist being pigeonholed, to avoid being cornered into a character profile that can - and will - be over-simplified and misinterpreted.

Cook is already one of England's finest batsmen, and few players have been better prepared to take over as captain. He needs no advice from me. But if I was forced to offer it anyway, I would say only this: stay light on your feet; wait to see what needs to be done; first discern the outline of the lock, only then cut the appropriate key.

And, of course, be lucky.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here