Mike Brearley is one of the most successful (and most enigmatic) of England cricket captains. To the uninitiated cricket is a baffling sport, yet its adherents obsess over its endless variations and layers of complexity.
It is almost unique in that it is a team sport played out through a series of deeply personal and individual duels. A trained psychoanalyst, Brearley has throughout his life studied, from both the inside and the outside, the construction and leadership of successful teams.
‘One could almost say,’ states Brearley in On Form, ‘a [successful] team is an individual. Each team has its own character, style, demeanour … It has its characteristic weaknesses or vulnerabilities, as well as strengths … The team is an individual greater than the sum of its parts. Similarly, the individual is a team, with many of the qualities of teams, a composite.’
Just as Newton showed that white light is a combination of a spectrum of colours, Brearley encourages us to consider the members of our teams (and indeed ourselves) as a mix of individual elements: strengths, interests, weaknesses, prejudices, beliefs and desires. We too appear to be a homogeneous whole, but are in effect a blend. As when white light is filtered through a prism different colours become visible, so we, at different times, in different situations and in different cultures behave and think differently. In this way, an effective leader creates a culture that rewards (emotionally and physically) the behaviours, beliefs and actions that most effectively help the team achieve their goal.
A great team is comprised of individuals who consider the team’s objectives to be consistent with the fulfilment of their own ambitions. Each brings with them their own desires, insecurities, passions and fears. A successful team allows its members, at different times, to pursue their own ambitions within the parameters of the objectives of the team, while at other times the needs of the whole (or of others) comes first. Thus each of us must and will at different times contribute to, and draw down from, the collective energy and resources of the whole. The leader’s role is to ensure her team members find and maintain this balance.
In most situations, the people around you have choices; you, as the leader, should strive to ensure that this is the case for your team. In simple binary terms, individuals have the choice to stay or go. The counter-intuitive implications of this are that a great leader should create as fluid an environment as possible. The leader’s job is not to make the best of a bad job, but to create an environment so good that nobody ever wants to leave. This is the fallacy of many modern employment contracts; if people feel trapped by their contract, then they will never be full, high-performing members of the team, and thus it is self-defeating, damaging not just them but the performance of the whole.
A great leader should strive to create an environment that their people actively choose to be part of, and for that to be true, the corollary must be that they have the option to leave. As the leader it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing the world only in terms of what is in your interests, so you must continually remain aware of what is in the interests of those who work for you.
The best leaders ensure a continual confluence of the needs of the individual and the needs of the collective. A great team is comprised of great individuals who see the fulfilment of the team’s objective as wholly compatible with the fulfilment of their own ambitions.
For a leader, it’s always worth remembering that there are lots of ‘I’s in team.