Article: A, B, C of D's (Dhoni's) leadership brilliance


A, B, C of D's (Dhoni's) leadership brilliance

Cracking the code of MS Dhoni's remarkable leadership prowess and the profound impact he has as a revered figure in the world of cricket
A, B, C of D's (Dhoni's) leadership brilliance

Victory has a way of magnifying the positives while overshadowing the flaws, with the triumphant ones becoming legends of courage, conviction, and passion while the defeated fade into obscurity.

In the thrilling finale of IPL 2023, Hardik Pandya, the captain of Gujarat Titans (GT), found himself on the losing side despite his impeccable performance. Chennai Super Kings (CSK) clinched the title in a nail-biting final ball, bouncing back from a subpar fielding display that allowed GT to set a record target. CSK's batsmen emerged as the heroes, propelled by their mesmerising captain, whose name echoed through every venue they played in this season. MS Dhoni's untold story has evolved into a saga of leadership excellence and a definitive guide to playing the game with integrity and emerging victorious.

So, what exactly sets Dhoni's leadership acumen apart? Is it his remarkable ability to handle pressure? Is it about people management—putting the right person on the job?  Is it his ability to be tactical or his own unorthodox style of playing that boosts the level for others to ape? 

It is Dhoni's intangible presence that bestows the elusive 'X' factor upon the larger team, granting them a distinct advantage during critical moments of the game. "Captain Cool's 'Aces Below the Collar'" elucidates the fundamental ABCs of leadership skills, a guide for professionals in the corporate world seeking to imbibe these qualities.

As: Aware, Agile, Active 

Dhoni is gifted with an ‘astute cricketing brain’ along with a tactical understanding of the game. His intuitive decision-making abilities, be it in field placements, effecting bowling changes, or shuffling the batting order, have perplexed experts and connoisseurs alike, but on hindsight, everyone seems to agree with Dhoni’s decision. He reads the game differently and adapts quickly to changing situations, which are his greatest strengths.

In a rapidly changing corporate environment, business leaders need to intuitively anticipate events and proactively align resources to respond to them. This requires leaders to seek out signals of change and assess their impact on the current set-up. They need to make their systems and structures agile so that the organisation becomes more adaptable to the demands of external changes. While leaders are expected to be looking into the future, they also need to have a finger on the day-to-day operations, where the game is played out.  Since intuitive decisions are seldom backed by clear evidence, they need to be experimental and willing to take ownership of the outcome.

Bs: Broad Vision, Belief, Belonging

One facet of CSK, which can be credited to Dhoni’s style of leadership, is creating the long-term vision for the team.  Talented rookies inducted into the team are exposed to CSK’s broad vision and culture and are allowed to immerse themselves in that culture. They are ably supported in developing their capabilities, given thorough practice sessions along with coaching and mentoring by fellow and experienced team-mates.  CSK has created a good bench strength, and it supplements this pool by picking up talented players through the auctioning system.

Dhoni is an exceptional leader who is known to lead from the front. His belief in his own capabilities has, on many occasions, turned the course of the game.  His unconventional yet uncomplicated approach to the game - batting, wicketkeeping, and team management - have inspired his teammates to raise their own games and give their best. He takes responsibility and is willing to shoulder the burden of the team's performance. He believes in nurturing players to become match-winners.  This trust and belief have created a positive team environment where players feel valued and motivated.

All players who have played for CSK, have mentioned the “trust” Dhoni has in them. Players know that they have their captain’s backing and feel empowered to experiment and develop new skills.

It may be interesting to know how many players left CSK to join another franchise during the fourteen (two years CSK was disqualified) years, with the striking exception of Ravichandran Ashwin, who once mentioned about Dhoni, “If my captain asks me to die on the field, I’ll do it!”

Such a spirit creates a sense of belonging, which always ups the team’s morale and translates into spectacular performances at crucial times!

In the corporate world, retrenching employees is making headlines. The organisation and the employee feel restrained from discussing long-term prospects, and mutual respect is on the decline.  A better proposition for the organisations would be to change the discussion from ‘skill-based fitment and remuneration’ to leading the prospective employees to believe in the company’s vision, trust its leadership, and make them feel wanted for the long-term. It may seem old-fashioned, but there is wisdom in the ‘Mahi-way’!

Cs: Composed, Compassionate, Clinical

The first thought about Dhoni is, he is composed, calm, and absorbs pressure. He stays unruffled even during crises, which, incidentally, was a feature of the ‘young Dhoni’ too! He stands in contrast to many other captains who show aggression on the field to indicate their commitment and active involvement in the game, which is then expected to boost the performance of their fellow teammates. Perhaps this calm attitude has helped Dhoni make rational decisions even in the most challenging circumstances while instilling confidence and belief in the players' own abilities.

Dhoni’s "compassion" towards the game and his teammates is palpable. He has always played the game by its rules, given it all his respect, and in return, earned his own respect from officials and spectators.  For his fellow team-mates, he has been a great support at personal and professional levels, largely on account of his grounded personality. From Ambatti Rayadu, with whom he played in the India A team many years ago, to a more recent and emerging player, Ruturaj Gaikwad, whom he met during his debut in a Ranji Trophy match in 2016,  CSK bought Ruturaj in 2019 at his base price of INR 20 lakhs, which in 2023, became INR 6.0 crores as the retention fee.  30X growth in 4 years!

Dhoni may not be very eloquent, but he is an effective communicator. His post-match analysis is exceptional, and in unambiguous terms, he lists down the pros and cons of the team’s performance. He conveys his messages clearly and effectively to his team members in areas where they have performed well and areas where they need to improve.  Regarding the team composition, his team-mates have averred, ‘We had a specific role to play in today’s game’, implying that his communication is well understood.  He also believes in short-duration review meetings.

‘Hustle’ is the trending word in the corporate world. Everything needs to be done in a jiffy and done right on the first attempt.  Such expectations put a lot of stress on unrealistic targets, a false sense of achievement, and an inaccurate assessment of self-worth. It is time for leadership to take a deep breath, get clinical about what’s realistically achievable, show compassion towards teams that are operationalising them, and stay composed with the business outcomes, whether expected or not.

IPL represents an innovative idea that has become a hugely profitable and successful event. It transformed the traditional game, challenged conventional methods, experimented with rules, infused technologies, and added entertainment to make this heady concoction of high speed, unpredictability, drama, suspense, and an outpouring of emotions. However, the reason for its phenomenal success is, IPL is still about people—for the people, by the people! 

Over the past sixteen editions, all teams have had a chance to be in the finals. Only two teams have been more successful than the rest. Franchise led teams have followed different management philosophies and have been financially successful in their endeavours. However, CSK and a microcosm of that, MS Dhoni, have stood out for more reasons than being champions five times in the IPL. 

Dhoni’s unflappable behaviour, effective communication, astute thinking, strong self-belief, willingness to experiment, and ownership of the unfavourable outcomes have become trademarks of his leadership skills. It is striking because others have attempted to be aggressive, demanding, in-the-face, etc.  He has built and attracted a team of champions by trusting them, motivating them without getting demanding, investing in their development, and providing them with "psychological safety". His players know their roles when the game’s dynamics change; they believe in their capabilities to perform and know that irrespective of the outcome, their captain is going to back them. Dhoni is analytical and objective in his assessments, and his team knows when to expect flak and when to receive praise. 

Finally, the world sees Dhoni-the-leader, as a player who is honest with the game and humble with its people; from the ground staff to the highest ranking officials, they can easily interact with him. He is grounded in the media and unassuming with his spectators. We all know very well that he recedes into the background when his team lifts the championship trophy and faces the spotlight.

As business transforms and the ordering and speed of change increase, investors and business leaders can take a leaf out of Dhoni’s fair play book of talents and traits and develop a sustainable enterprise that thrives because it believes that its business is ‘about’ and ‘for’ people who need to be cared for, nurtured, and protected.

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Topics: Leadership, #TeamAlignment

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