Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Dhoni Effect: How to Keep Your Cool Amidst a Billion Emotions

[Dhoni's winning shot].
By Dr. Suhaib Riaz

You don’t have to know anything about cricket as a sport to sense that there was something special about the way the winning team’s captain clobbered the ball out of the park to claim the Cricket World Cup 2011 (winning shot video here). Till a couple of days ago, some had suggested that the same man should just be a non-playing captain for the final, given his lack of form with the bat throughout the tournament. Well, he won the player-of-the-match in the final against a very formidable team!

Management scholars have often turned to sports contexts to understand leadership and teamwork. Despite a number of scholars with connections to cricketing countries, studies focusing on cricket are virtually non-existent. Perhaps it is time to change that, and consider adding a new word to the leadership lexicon: the Dhoni effect.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the captain of the Indian team, is the anti-thesis of what you would expect from a captain of a nation wildly passionate and emotional about cricket: he somehow manages to keep his head while a billion supporters are losing theirs, is able to handle both wins and losses with equanimity, and has led the team to quite a few major victories. How does he do it?

Dr. Glenn Rowe, who has studied leaders in sports for years (with whom I wrote a couple of pieces here and here), coined a term for a special type of leadership: Strategic Leadership. The idea could be a start to analyze some aspects of Dhoni’s leadership style

Strategic leaders believe in strategic choice i.e. that their choices make a difference. Dhoni has consistently displayed this belief - he has a track record of very actively getting engaged in making choices in both team selection and on-the-field decisions. He’s certainly not one to sit back and let things take their own course. 

Moreover, such leaders exercise both linear, and more importantly, non-linear thinking. Such thinking is often backed by use of non-explicit, or tacit knowledge. Dhoni’s non-linear thinking is often the subject of major controversies. He backed an out-of-form Yuvraj Singh for inclusion into the team by ignoring his explicit scores that year and focusing on the fundamentally tacit understanding that he shines in high pressure, big tournaments. While this worked out superbly as Yuvraj won player-of-the-tournament, many other risks didn’t work, yet Dhoni kept up a balance of risk-taking through non-linear thinking to complement the more obvious decisions made through linear thinking.

Another key attribute is that such leaders have strong, positive expectations of the performance they expect from their peers, juniors, superiors, and even themselves. While the entire team vouches for Dhoni’s leadership on this count, he proved a further point by expecting a major performance from himself in the world cup final, displayed non-linear thinking by promoting himself up the batting order, and delivered in style.
There’s a lot more to be said here, but overall, strategic leadership is about balance: balancing the “visionary” side (risk taking, non-linear thinking, long term orientation) with the “managerial” side (linear thinking, short-term orientation) – and that is the secret of Dhoni's success: he has displayed the balance well.

This balance can also be summed up in another way: such leaders "come to work, dream for an hour, and then do something about those dreams for the next several hours".

Even in post-match celebrations, Dhoni displays interesting leadership attributes: his sense of who he is, is not completely dependent on the situation – he works in, but is not fully taken-in by the environment around him. His calm remained as he walked across the field with the team in a lap of honour.

This is particularly noteworthy as captains from the South Asian subcontinent always have a difficult time: public opinion is fickle and turns from love to hate in a moment, as articulated by another captain who won the world cup for his country two decades ago: Imran Khan, who incidentally labeled Dhoni’s men as his favourites this time, and who has for long been a case study of leadership

But any such comparisons can wait for another time. Right now, it's all about the Dhoni effect that gripped the Indian team for a month and made them come out tops. Let the leadership scholars take note.

1 comment:

Hari said...

Maybe Dhonis time was great then - credit to him that he didnt leave it when his team was losing heavily.

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