The Power of the Positive Mindset

Jim Chaplin, SRI's Chief Executive Officer, assesses the catalysts for the transformation of England's cricket team in recent months.

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The transformation of the England Test cricket team under Ben Stokes, Brendon McCullum and Rob Key’s leadership is remarkable.

In recent months, England have gone from a team that couldn’t buy a win to winning eight tests out of nine in the most thrilling style and with largely the same group of players who lost ten of their previous fourteen tests. It is a story that goes beyond cricket and into a wider debate around leadership and the power of positive thinking.

Having been involved in the recruitment process of Key, McCullum and Matthew Mott (who has also made an excellent start in his role, winning the World T20 Cup in his first major global tournament as coach), I have spent time reflecting carefully on why these appointments have been so impactful. Was there something in the interview process that we can bottle and use to help inform future appointments?

The answer, of course, is heavily nuanced.

We can look at a number of factors that downplay the achievements of McCullum – firstly, England’s test team had endured a number of challenges that made winning much more difficult in the previous 24 months. The impact of Covid on England’s players was more pronounced than it was for many other countries, and the preparation and injuries prior to the ill-fated Ashes tour was very difficult and, let’s face it, getting thrashed in Australia is not a unique experience for England. Secondly, the way that Ben Stokes has taken to the captaincy has been beyond most pundits’ expectations. Not only has he proven to be an inspirational leader, but he has also been tactically astute and fearless. Perhaps Stokes would have flourished under any coach.

But the counter argument is also powerful: the conviction, approach, and vision of Key and McCullum have been pivotal in enabling such a radical transformation in the test team.

The “English” thing

Both Key and McCullum are critical of much of the thinking that has permeated English cricket over the years: a crippling conservatism, an unwillingness to take risks, a tendency to overcomplicate the game, and a negativity that stifles and constricts players from approaching the game in a way that is more likely to unleash their full potential. Morgan and Bayliss were, in many ways, cut from the same cloth. Bayliss famously stopped the England team’s celebrations after their World Cup semi-final win to remind them they’d won nothing yet and that no Australian dressing room would ever get carried away by a semi-final win. Their commitment to a style of play was key to achieving that famous win in 2019.

McCullum was shocked by the reaction to his only defeat as England coach when his side lost an important toss and were defeated by South Africa. He also bristled at a question from a journalist who asked whether they would change their style when they suffered a run of defeats. His reaction was “that is such a typically English approach, why should we be expecting a run of defeats?” Having taken New Zealand, a country with far fewer resources to the top of the world rankings, McCullum’s starting point was that with so many resources at his disposal as England coach, there was no limit to the potential: stop obsessing over what we can’t do and focus on what we’ve got.

The “glass half full”

This links very much to McCullum and Key’s approach to life: they are both natural optimists. They see the best in people, they focus on what they can do and not what they cannot do. No English commentator would have given England a chance of winning in Pakistan with a side containing three right arm medium fast seamers and two orthodox finger spinners. More significantly, if a coach had suggested that the way to go in Pakistan was to score at seven runs an over with a side made up of a number of attacking batsmen, they’d have been ridiculed in many areas. Instead, McCullum focused on what we have got – brilliant, aggressive batsmen and skillful bowlers adept at performing in different conditions. The stereotypes and the past have been thrown out of the window and replaced with a robust belief in the players in the team and a focus on playing the conditions as they see them on the day.

The “big idea”

McCullum was very clear on his motivation to do the job: he wanted to save test cricket. He is passionate about the game, and he wants it to flourish. His view was that without a strong England team, the game dies. This ability to see the bigger picture is fundamental. It enables a fearlessness and drives confidence in a group. No longer are they worried about winning a single test, they are focused on revolution and changing the game forever. That is empowering and inspiring. Who doesn’t want to be part of something as powerful as that? It means you work harder, and you build a bond and togetherness which is stronger and harder to break than a group that is worried about failure. But to drive that change through the group you need alignment and total commitment from the very top: Stokes, McCullum and Key see the opportunity in the same way and that has enabled the process of shifting mindset throughout the group to be so much quicker and so much more likely to be irreversible.

The “fearlessness”

McCullum has said on many occasions that he didn’t come looking for the job. Key was also forging a very successful career for himself in the commentary box. Neither of them “needed” the job in the way that some others may have done before them, and this has given them a freedom to adopt their ideas and their agenda. They are prepared to risk failure in order to get a higher reward. But this mindset is reinforced by high levels of self-confidence. They genuinely believe in their approach, they are wholly committed to their views on how the game should be played and whilst they will be influenced by what others think, they will not be swayed from their agenda by short-term bumps in the road.

KISS: keep it simple stupid

There is a lot of nonsense talked about leadership. The ability to get the big decisions right and then to manage the team effectively is what drives great results. The decision to make Stokes captain, the ability to identify world class talent, the clarity of the message, and the day-to-day people management are the things that really matter. Mike Atherton talks about schoolteachers often making the best coaches, and there is something to be said for this: it is about dealing with young people in a way that builds their confidence and creates an environment that is fun to be a part of. McCullum talks a lot about getting to know his players, spending time with them, understanding their backgrounds and their mindset. He genuinely cares about his charges and feels a huge responsibility to help them deliver their potential.

But it’s not simple

If only it was that simple. It’s why I think the “Bazball” tag rankles with McCullum – it shows a lack of respect for the complexity of his role. The transformation of a mentality and style of play at the highest levels in international sport requires much more thought than an instruction to go out and have some fun. It is about every training session, every interaction with every player, it is about what’s said and what’s not said in the dressing room before, during, and after play. It’s about what happens in the hotel in the evening and what happens between tests. And this is arguably where the genius of McCullum lies. I would hazard a large wager on the fact that McCullum chooses his words very carefully, and he spends a lot of his time observing, thinking, and listening. He has made sure he’s surrounded himself with the right support staff who buy into his thinking without reservation, and it’s about his personality and attitude. In my career, there are very few people who I have interviewed who I’ve wanted to work for – but McCullum has a magnetism and an approach to life that is energising and compelling. And it is not just about having fun – it is about achieving great things together, it is about helping others, and it is about being true to yourself. He is simply someone you would not want to let down. That is a skill that very few people possess.

Lessons for others:

When looking at great leaders across sport and business, many of the traits above are very evident. Most leaders will have the intent to do much of the above, but very few will be brave enough, resilient enough, or confident enough to stay true to this intent. The likes of Ferguson, Wenger, Klopp, and Guardiola are exceptions to the rule in sport. And perhaps McCullum and Key will fail here too – perhaps their objectivity, energy, and higher purpose goals will be compromised by the combination of time in their roles, the inherent conservatism within cricketing institutions, and a few defeats. But I very much doubt it. These two are not for turning.

As we approach the end of year in a cost-of-living crisis and a flurry of strikes, it’s a lesson that all leaders would do well to reflect on over the holiday period. If we allow ourselves to focus on the negatives and be enveloped in a cloud of gloom and despondency, don’t be surprised to see bad results follow. In McCullum’s words, it is instead the time to run towards the danger.

 

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