The Leading Edge

Paddy Steinfort
Dec 11, 2016 · 9 min read

If you’re one of many in the world who think the US political system is the definition of turmoil right now, you haven’t seen Australian Cricket.

(For North American readers, cricket is the rest of the world’s version of baseball — a slow game that’s woven into the fabric of national identities, with millionaire players who are treated like gods if they win — and dunces if they don’t.)

Cricket Australia CEO, James Sutherland, is under plenty of pressure.

Off the back of a record losing streak in marquee international matches — in a game central to the country’s culture, and on home soil to boot — the well-worn knives of the Aussie media are out. Under this intense spotlight, the leaders of Australian Cricket are not letting players off the hook, with the CEO saying player complaints about their inability to prepare were just excuses, and players need to toughen up.

And while the press agrees, they think the blame should be shared given the leaders haven’t exactly set it up right — echoing thoughts of former players who claim administrators like the new interim selector (and living legend) were part of the root cause years ago.

It’s like a royal rumble: admin vs players, players vs selectors, coaches vs press. Everyone wants someone to blame. But where should we point the finger: can a culture of toughness be baked in by leaders, or is it up to the individuals in the team to just toughen up?

The answers to those questions can be found on the other side of the world, which as luck would have it is where I happen to live and work these days.

While the Australian team was being dissected by the visiting South African team, and the US Presidential pandemonium raged on, I was in London at a conference about leadership. For MLB coaches, the off-season is a great chance to get away, and it’s a bonus if you can get better at the same time. For me, the Leaders in Performance conference — an industry think-tank showcasing world experts from different performance disciplines —was a good excuse to do both.

The conference covered many topics, but the common thread throughout most of the talks? People. Culture. And the role of leaders in elevating both. Of particular relevance to the issues facing the Aussie cricket team — but really any team at the pointy end of a competitive industry — was a panel with two seemingly unrelated speakers: Captain Mike Young, the Director of Human Resilience for the Royal Navy, and Danny Kerry, the Head Coach of the British Women’s Hockey Team who only months ago won Olympic gold in Rio.

The connection between the two became crystal clear early in the discussion, though, when talking about how they prepared their people to perform under very different stresses.

Capt. Mike Young (left, Royal Navy), alongside Danny Kerry (British Women’s Hockey)

“What we’re rehearsing is self control and self belief,” Capt. Young explained when asked how they train toughness in the military, “and group control and group commitment.” To do this, they test the soldiers in increasingly stressful situations — generating fear via height, fire, water, and other stressors like sleep deprivation.

“We have what we call ‘Dislocation of expectation’” Young explained. “If you have teams that expect 1 to be followed by 2 to be followed by 3, but then 1 is followed by 4, you don’t want the first time they encounter that to be when it really matters. So you gotta train them for that.”

As if they had been reading from the same playbook, Kelly spoke of an eerily similar approach in the British buildup to their gold medal campaign. “It’s all about that environment you create for the years leading up to the games. Sometimes we get fixated on one match, but what we were going to be judged on was 28 days in close proximity to each other, and 8 matches in 13 days — you’re going to have to have a team that is resilient to that type of environment. Does your training environment replicate that environment? We made sure ours was as harsh as possible.”

The counter-intuitive key to making that work, according to Capt. Young, was having a supportive environment that valued the individuals and allowed people to be open about what they needed to improve, knowing that they would be supported to do so. He recounted his experience in basic weapons training to underscore his point:

“At first, no one held their hand up to say ‘I don’t think I quite got that’ because they wanted to preserve their face, and protect themselves from being judged. But when you’re about to deploy, and it could be the difference between whether you live or die, everyone’s a lot quicker to say ‘You know what, I’d like to take one more swing at this.’ Again, it comes back to the fact that if everyone is committed to the purpose, and it’s very clear, people will declare the things that they wish were better, because they’d rather close that gap than leave the potential gap between where they eventually get to and where they want to get to.”

Over in the USA, many of the world’s leaders in both psychology and sport say the same thing. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal focuses her research on how we control our self control, and has found that willpower improves with support and compassion from team members, not scolding and shame. What exactly does increased willpower mean for performers? For starters, they’ll be more able to stick to a plan. They will be better placed to make sacrifices, and it’s basically the key ingredient to being able to persevere, and focus, when things are hard. Funnily enough, that’s exactly what the Australian coaches want.

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll leads the way with empathy.

At a group level, the benefits are there too — it’s empathy that increases accountability over the long run, not guilt. Researchers have found that a compassionate point of view during setbacks makes people more likely to help others & take responsibility. One of the best teams in the world — the Seattle Seahawks — have spent years building this type of environment, led by their always upbeat coach, Pete Carroll.

I once shared this exact story to a friend and mentor as we talked about the lessons sport can give you about life and leadership, and his initial instincts as a coach were to push back against the idea. Surely, he protested, in the hyper-competitive world of elite sport, and especially in the brutal world of warfare, things can’t always be nice and soft?

Both the experts elaborated on why the role of the coach or the leader in connecting people with purpose is so important. Young quoted Nietzsche to set the theme — “If you have a why to live for, you can endure almost any how” — but was quick to follow up with practical advice. “Someone has to articulate that why and make it worthwhile enough to get you through those dark days.”

“Our environment was harsh,” Kerry was emphatic. “But it was designed by the athletes as well as myself, and that harsh environment produces very resilient and capable athletes very equipped to deal with the Olympic environment.”

It was this stake the athletes had in what they were doing that built what Kerry saw as their real competitive advantage. “People put individuals up in the media, but fundamentally the reason we were successful is because we were the best team. And the reason we were the best team was because we had a common sense of purpose. The bonds that were formed through hard work, training and a shared purpose.”

When pressed on whether that grew organically, or they manufactured it, he was adamant they had spent many hours and tough discussions getting clear on how they wanted their team to be.

“The culture piece started with ‘Why are we here?’ he explained. “Often young athletes talk about ‘I wanna win a medal’. But what if that doesn’t happen… does that make all of the rest of what you’ve done a waste of time? So there has to be something, a higher purpose than a medal. And we worked really hard with the athletes to understand what that higher purpose was.”

The results on the field were only one manifestation. “For those of you who’ve seen the hockey athletes in the media, they’ll talk a lot about inspiring the future — that became their why. We will perform in a way that will inspire people to wanna do our sport. We want people to see the values of our team, that sense of team, come out — the way we talk to camera, the way we perform on the pitch, the way we are together — and that to be tangible for people and people to want to get involved in our sport.” Kerry slowed to make his final point:

“And that became our why. It wasn’t about the medal, it was about inspiring the future.”

Other evidence from psychology research in both the US and even Australia confirms what these smart leaders intuitively know: A level of ownership from all parties — academically known as ‘autonomy’ — leads to better motivation & more confidence.

It’s this last link that could be arguably the most relevant to those trying to drive performance: this type of ’autonomous’ motivation leads to prolonged effort and better focus, across all sorts of teams. In medical clinics, staff who operate under these conditions not only perform better, their patients also stick to the treatment for longer. In a university chemistry course, this style of leadership led to better student grades and lower drop-out rates. Even in Major League Baseball, the most clutch teams have built cultures that promote autonomous behaviors based on shared purpose.

“This isn’t just psychobabble though,” according to Capt Young, who says there is a link between psychologists and leaders. “They’re both just trying to make a self-sufficient person.”

By the end of the panel, the two leaders were riffing off one another, the synergies as clear as the examples they had painted. Kerry jumped straight in to add a caveat. “Building that (culture) takes effort, that takes time, and if you believe in culture you have to give it time. It was part of our weekly training survey: ‘Did we live our vision, values & behaviors this week?’”

His point of view — backed by medals and science — resonated with my own previous experience as a leadership coach for international teams in a number off sports (including cricket). If this type of approach is good enough for golden Olympians and the army with the longest unbeaten record in the world, there might be something in it for Australian Cricket. Back in Oz, everyone is searching for answers and ways to fix what is clearly broken when it may be a simple matter of connecting the dots from the best performers, researchers and leaders around the world.

For the Australian cricket team, leaders at all levels — the captain, the coach, selectors and CEO — need to get on the same page, and commit to long term purpose, beyond fixing things this week. They need to get back to WHY this team exists, and what’s truly important — a purpose beyond individual performances, so that it can guide HOW they do things: how they train, how they select, how they prepare, how they play.

As if to drive the entire point home one last time, Capt. Young recalled one of the first pieces of advice he received as he started his military career 27 years ago, from a general who was captured but ultimately made it home. “To get to that position (where all members would die for each other rather than let the mission down) you need to build bonds between people,” he reminisced on stage, looking as if he were back at his military training like it was yesterday.

“And that’s your job as a leader, sir.”

Paddy Steinfort is a former professional athlete from Australia & Head of Mental Performance for a Major League Baseball team. He’s previously served a leadership consultant at international level in multiple sports (including cricket), and continues to consult to other teams and organizations on leading cultural change that ultimately improves performance.

Paddy Steinfort

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Performance 🏀 76ers. Consultant ⚾ & 🏈. From AUS ➡️ NZ ➡️ LA ➡️ PHL 🔄 NYC… Oh, and I wrote a book for a mate:

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