Captaincy… ‘oppa Dhoni style!

One of my favorite scenes in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series is when Capt. Norrington’s aide remarks to him, “That has to be the worst pirate I’ve ever seen.” (for those of you who want to see it again – the Youtube clip) – a few minutes before he utters, equally automatically, “that has to be best pirate I’ve ever seen!”
Watching Captain MS Dhoni, on and off the field, evokes similar reactions. The man’s decisions seems maddeningly counter-intuitive, making you go – why oh why oh why – until, sometime later, he somehow manages to just pull it off. A lot of examples abound of his successes and his failures, but when you hit a good streak, it’s the former that people remember more easily (and the reverse holds true, as well!)
Case in point: Shikhar Dhawan’s scintillating debut today (185* off 168 balls)
Why am I giving credit to Dhoni for selecting Dhawan when he was practically forced to do, given Sehwag’s consistent struggle in the past few months?
Call me an optimist, but the way the newcomers – and the come-back’ers – have performed with an intensity and a hunger is a reflection of the leadership that they are operating under. It is indeed a struggle for any up-and-coming cricketer to break into the Indian team – just as it would be for any Tom, Dick and Harry to get into a world-class company – despite being the smartest fish in a smaller pond. At the same time, it is not unheard of for someone to be put on the fast-track on the basis of a couple of tearaway performances – nor unusual for that shining star to turn into a shooting star that fades away just as you catch sight of it. Too much, too soon…
Yet, when one is rewarded for perseverance over (just a few) performances, there is a hunger that makes you clutch each opportunity in a vise-like grip, not willing to slack off or even take the slightest chance of losing it all. Dhawan’s innings – or Pujara’s or Vijay’s, from Hyderabad, or Harbhajan Singh’s desperate dive to save a number-10 batsman’s boundary even with a lead of 135+ runs – has been characterized by that hunger, of realizing that each and every aspect of their commitment was precious. Of remembering the promises (uttered and implied) that they would have made to their captain.
What has the captain offered in return?
If one goes by the usual reports in the media, preference for selection, despite the risk to the team’s successes, on grounds of personal relationships.
There is another interpretation (not expressed as stridently, perhaps, as the obvious motive of favoritism) for Dhoni’s persisting with out-of-form players – something that he himself has taken pains to drive home to a largely stubborn opinion-community – that players needed to know that they can make mistakes as long as they learn from it, that the cushion of continued faith in one’s abilities is better than a sword hanging over your head if you want to bring out the best in someone. Kudos to the selectors and the rest of the management for falling in with this philosophy, a rare marriage of mixing ground realities with the responsibilities of ensuring a team’s future. Thus, a battered Ashwin has fought back in this series. An almost-written-off Jadeja has rediscovered his mojo.
In a corporate world, we leave this too often to the immediate manager’s responsibility – as if motivating an employee to go that extra step, to take that extra leap, is not the responsibility of anyone else within the organization. True, employees leave managers, not companies – but that does not absolve each and every cog of the leadership chain from having to feel responsible for the morale of their employees. 
A friend of mine recently complained that his company was finding it difficult to service even the most basic commitments to its customers and its employees – yet, when he put in his papers, he was wined and dined by the CEO at a posh hotel in Bangalore, a call was put through to his manager to clear every single bill of his and he was offered a raise on the spot. On the face of it, one would call it smart people management from the CEO to keep from losing one of his top revenue generators. Yet, peeling the surface, you realize that these promises, toothless and perhaps insincere out of the CEO’s inability to hold to them, were nothing more than a cosmetic adherence to a common management philosophy that believes in muting the symptoms, not curing them.
For a company to transform from a transactional existence to a truly great place to work in, there has to be a sensitization that each and every person who impacts the internal stakeholders is as critical to the success as the ones who face the external stakeholders. A checker in the finance team has to do his work as diligently as the sales rep whose bills he is auditing. The guy in the warehouse has to realize that there is a downside to sending the wrong components, even if it means that his dispatch metrics are less than optimal. 
And that is where the sub-captains step in. To ensure that in the midst of carrying on his/her division’s goals, you do not lose track of the big picture that you are painting. 
And that is where the management – mid-, top-, bottom-, whatchamacallit-levels – need to ensure that the silos dissolve and that you do not create an unhealthily competitive atmosphere between people who have to be in synergy. In a lot of sales-driven companies, the traditional style of checks-and-balances has been to let the individual divisions fight it out. (Marketing vs sales, sales vs service, service vs branding, branding vs finance, etc) – that needs to change. When you spend millions of dollars on setting up a unified IT architecture, and yet fail to see the significance of gelling your divisions together in mind more than silicon, it makes you one of the worst captains ever. If you prefer internal competitiveness to competing efficiently against your competitors, you’ve already lost the market before you’ve set foot in it. That’s the shortest route to mediocrity, to the footnotes of history as a company that just could not hack it.
On the other hand, if you truly believe in employee motivation, stop wasting time on trying to motivate them with empty pep-talks and outsourced mind-altering (or -numbing, depending on the outcome) seminars. It might soothe the corporate conscience and give you the chance to chuck out a few “he’s just not a team player, doesn’t have the right attitude” types, but you’ve still not understood what is pricking your employees. And understanding that is the first step to being a great place to work in.
Internal competitiveness, like stomach acid, can be corrosive if that is what the organizational culture degenerates to. So can a Stalinistic attitude to mistakes. If you’ve hired an employee believing in his/her potential, then you have an obligation to realize that potential – and make them feel more comfortable than if they had jumped into the midst of malnourished sharks – as a mark of respect to the time and effort that has gone into that recruitment. 
Take a leaf out of Dhoni’s book. Make your employees hunger for your success. And then make sure they know they have your faith in getting it.

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