Business Captaincy


Wednesday 20 June 2007

Michael Vaughan OBE with Dr Steve Bull

Business Captaincy: Ashes to Ashes: Successful leadership lessons from the England Cricket Captain

The Peacock Theatre, London

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Michael Vaughan may not have the glamourous lifestyle of a Formula One driver or the dizzying salary of a Premiership footballer, but he's undoubtedly the coolest sportsman in England. Since 2003, he's captained the national cricket team to more test victories than any of his predecessors, and he's done so without ever - apparently - losing control of his emotions. On the pitch, his trademark expression is one of blank focus, as if his face were carved out of the same willow as his bat.

Vaughan's composure didn't slip as he addressed the London Business Forum at the Peacock Theatre. However, he was much more relaxed and human than he ever appeared on TV or at the crease. This was due in large part to the presence of Dr Steve Bull, the leading sports psychologist, who was on hand to compère the event. We were, in effect, being allowed to spy on a therapeutic coaching session, and then to interrupt it with questions while the patient was still on the couch.

Bull praised Vaughan early on for his steely calm. But the man himself denied it was anything special. "Those Oakley sunglasses hide a lot," he said. "When you're in a position of making decisions that are so important, you're not going to be thinking clearly. You're going to... be shitting yourself. That's the honest opinion."

Vaughan confessed that in situations of extreme pressure he asked himself how the players wanted their captain to look, then acted accordingly. "Do they want him to be shoulders down, kicking the dirt, head down, thinking, 'Oh, my God, we've lost.' Or do they want a captain with his shoulders back pretending that he's calm as hell, and that everything's going to be all right?'"

A leader is an actor in many respects, he suggested. They need to adopt different roles in front of the opposition, on the training ground, in front of the media and so on. And they shouldn't feel guilty for doing so. "You are allowed to act. You are allowed to be very nervous... Because that is normality," he said. The crucial thing to remember is that you hide all your self-doubt from your team, because they need to see "a guy that looks under control."

Bull pointed out that a good leader also avoids doing anything to increase the pressure faced by his staff. "They've got to look at you and see control, confidence and a strong role-model," he said. "We've observed that athletes will pick up on the smallest behavioural changes in their team managers and their coaches. So we say [to Olympic coaches], 'If you butter your toast differently at breakfast time, your athletes will spot that.' And I think that's actually true for any performance environment, inside or outside of sport."

Nevertheless, a good leader will share the burden of leadership with his staff, the men agreed. Vaughan witnessed first-hand how his predecessor, Nasser Hussain, was burdened by decision-making responsibilities. He also recognised that many of the team were leaders at their own clubs, with valuable experience and insights to share. "If there's 11 of you on the pitch, 11 of you should be thinking about the game of cricket," he suggested. "What's the best way forward? What are the best fields? What are the best bowling changes? What are the best tactics? ... If you can get that environment, you can delegate things to people."

Vaughan admitted he probably tried to "do everything" when he first took over as England captain, but added that, over the years, he had managed to delegate more and more, and to make his job easier as a result. (Indeed, his latest act of delegation was the biggest to date - handing over the captaincy of the one-day side to Paul Collingwood, and thereby leaving himself free to focus on test strategy.)

One of the effects of sharing leadership is that is makes players feel more involved with the team. "They own the team a little bit more," he said. "And when you win, [it's] a little bit better because they feel that they contributed to the decisions and tactics." Another is that it fosters a culture of inclusivity. Vaughan recalled that when he started playing for Yorkshire aged 18, he "basically had to make tea for the senior players," and was "kept to one side." Newcomers were expected to keep their ideas to themselves, and as a result there was no refreshment or renewal of the team's style of play.

By contrast, the Australian national side has for decades encouraged younger players to make a full contribution. This, Vaughan argued, is one of the major factors in their dominance of the sport.

For England, shifting the focus of the team to younger players became a priority in the run-up to the 2005 Ashes series. "We had to get rid of a few of the senior players, not because they're not good players, but [because] we felt like they had a lot of baggage against Australia," Vaughan said. He suggested that since many of the senior players had lost to Australia many times before, their heads were more likely to drop should England lose the first test. "I wanted a really young team with no fear of... facing McGrath, Lee, Warne, Ponting, Hayden or Langer," he said.

The main benefit of having a team with no baggage is that the leader can more easily find constructive things to say about a loss, he continued. "If you look at that [first] game at Lord's: yes, we lost, and we lost quite convincingly, but there were so many positives to take out of the game." All of the younger players believed sincerely that England could fight back, and so it proved.

Very different skills were required when Vaughan himself had to fight back from serious injury, and it was these that Bull chose to focus on next. With a serious knee injury keeping him out of action throughout 2006, a succession of hamstring problems and then a broken finger, it seemed Vaughan might never regain his form. But then in May of this year, in his first test for 18 months, the captain reasserted his authority by pounding the West Indies with an innings of 103.

He attributed his recovery in part to common-sense measures: drawing encouragement from past recoveries, for example, and setting himself manageable goals. But he also said some deep self-analysis was required. "I always say, 'You're never out of form, you're out of mind.' You forget your routine, or you get a little bit blasé, or you get a bit too clever."

The key to consistently high performance is to get the basics right, he argued. "You see a lot of players, when they're doing well... start calling fancy shots, or trying to bowl clever deliveries, and before you know it, they play themselves out of form." The way to overcome this rot is to recall your original motivations, he suggested. "Why did we play the game when we were kids? Because we enjoyed it. Why did we play? Because we just enjoyed running around. We liked smacking the ball. We liked catching it. We liked training. And sometimes, when you're doing it under pressure, you forget to do that. You forget to think about why you did it as a kid."

Snapping back into your optimal routine is also crucial, he added. All the best players have a routine they can fall back on. So whenever he is facing a delivery, he treats it as a series of steps from the run-in to the release to the strike, each of which activates a habitual response. "I know exactly what I'm going to do... so every ball seems to be the same ball because I'm doing the same thing, moving my feet, my stance, my thought process," he said. "It just happens."

Ultimately, he said, what gives you confidence is preparation. The 103 innings that marked his return to form came in a week when he felt fully prepared and raring to go. The routine was so well-embedded that his instincts told him he was on form. "It all felt right that week, so I didn't want to seem arrogant, but I wanted to feel confident, and I told everyone that I was going to go and get a few runs, and thankfully I did."

Perhaps the most important prerequisite of high performance, he concluded, is enjoyment. When you know that you have done all you can to prepare for a match then you can genuinely enjoy it. And you can help your players to feel the same way. "I always go to the players pre-match, during the match, [and] remind them about great experiences as a team and as individuals," he said. "I always tell them how great they've been playing in the nets, even if they've not. And it's just a build-up process to make sure that when we're going out on that pitch, they're all feeling good about themselves... If you're doing everything you possibly can, you can enjoy life. You can enjoy the game, and I guarantee that'll bring success."