Corporate lessons from Tampergate
Steve Smith, David Warner, and Cameron Bancroft have become the poster boys of all that is wrong with the business of winning — winning at all costs. Darren Lehman, the coach who has taken the moral responsibility has also quit as if he had any real choice in the matter.
I studied the coverage of this saga in the Indian media, Australian media, and of course on the web; and to my mind at least, I found it to be a partial coverage. The dominant narrative has been that this is a case of an individual(s) gone rogue. I did not quite see the coverage appropriately and proportionately questioning other dimensions — leadership, system, and society with any rigor. And in the want of these dimensions, the easiest to blame took the brunt.
Indeed it was a case of individual lapse. Smith, Warner, and Bancroft were adults and knew exactly what they were doing. The act was clearly unprofessional and unethical they must be proportionately penalized for it, and they were.
However, Smith was not only an individual; he was also the captain. He, along with the coach Lehman, who irrespective of the veracity of his claim that he was unaware of this plan formed the leadership team, both were supposed to uphold the fair play together. The breach was right at the top! The breach would have shocked and hurt less perhaps had it been some fringe player who would have indulged in this cheating in the pursuit of individual glory. It hurts more because it was the captain. The leadership lapse was larger than the individual lapse.
There are two other layers of the lapse that really is the area of my attention. The first one is that of the Australian Cricket Board (ACB). I did not see too many questions raised about them, and those who did so, did it obliquely, in the passing and at best, mildly. The ACB is not only the administrator but also the guardian of the culture that cricket is being played with. The Aussies play their cricket with their hearts and they do not like to lose. This fierce desire to win is ingrained in them, although some argue that the desire to win is more an Aussie trait than specific to Aussie cricketing trait, but more on that in the subsequent paragraphs. The rise into the national squad does not come easy to a player. He has to fight his way through the highly competitive club cricketing circuit, state level circuit before wearing the coveted green baggies. The attrition rates are high. The fear of not making the cut is always lurking in the shadows. There are so many talented young men who are ready to take your spot that one does not want to take a chance with winning, and winning consistently. It is just a matter of time when this degrades into winning at all costs. However, the dark shadows of this ultra-machismo of hyper-competitiveness would not fall too far!
If organizations are not aware of the cultural dimensions of hyper-competitiveness, then they are being run by amateur people with a myopic outlook and a poor understanding of human motivation
The role of ACB can only be looked in two ways — either it was not aware of the cultural manifestation or consequences of this hyper-competitiveness, or it was aware of it and chose to turn a blind eye because of the payoffs that it is fetching them (who can argue with 3 World Cups!). ACB has to take some share of the blame of tampergate either which ways. If it is not aware of the cultural dimensions of hyper-competitiveness, then I guess the board is being run by amateur people with a myopic outlook and a poor understanding of human motivation. They lack the wisdom that the extreme urge to win has to be moderated by the sensitization of the rule of law, a sense of ethics, fair play and a constant reminder of the holy grail of all, that we would all be reduced to being barbarians if we start believing the highly romanticized and overrated but misplaced notion of ‘everything is fair in love and war’. In case they were aware of the rot in the cultural fabric that this hyper-competitiveness will one day erupt in something like a tampergate, and chose to turn a blind eye to it, then they must take the blame as much as it has been extracted from Warner and Co. The awareness that I mention is not really a cognitive awareness of this specific event but a foresight, the reasonable ability to predict things, given their experience and wisdom, of what kind of culture they had and where the road was leading to. (Obviously, this is rhetoric and one does not really believe that the board will ever take this line.)
Do we lack the wisdom that the extreme urge to win has to be moderated by the sensitization of the rule of law, a sense of ethics, and fair play?
A final word on the Australian public – the fans and the society at large. The players, the leadership, and the board do not exist in isolation. They exist in the specific context of the Australian way of life. They must equally fix the gaze inside to ascertain if they had any role to play in this. Cricket in Australia is serious business – the national side carries the burden of heightened expectations every time they step into the greens. Every loss is dissected, every failure scrutinized. In the last two decades, they have dominated the world of cricket and there is backlash and uproar each time the crown appears to be slipping. I can imagine Steve Smiths demons — the nightmare of losing the reputation of the dominators of the willow and the cherry. He would not want to come out on the streets, drink in the pubs and meet a fellow Australians gaze that would have held him guilty of the heinous crime of being the guy who demolished the legacy of Border, Waugh, Ponting, and Clarke. Ah! – the weight some shoulders carry!
So what failure was this really – of the individual, leadership, the system or the society? We at workplaces have a lesson or two to learn from all of this.