WHAT MSD TAUGHT US ABOUT LEADERSHIP IN THE DIGITAL AGE

My second favorite cricketer, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (MSD) retired last week. (If curious- obviously Sachin Tendulkar is THE favorite). What I liked about MSD better was his leadership skills, that in my opinion were better than any other cricketer. And since he announced his retirement last week, I have been introspecting on how some of the leadership skills he exhibited are the ones that are going to be critical for current and prospective leaders in the Digital Age.

Build a talent pipeline- because Mojo is always temporary

At his peak, Dhoni was an attack machine when he was out there to bat. But being good at his profession, and being very cognizant about the world of cricket, he understood that this Mojo won’t last forever.

Now we all know that MSD was discriminated against many times before he finally was able to secure a spot in the Indian team. As Dhoni clearly saw that this Mojo- popularly known as “form” in the world of cricket, will not last forever, he could have lengthened his tenure as the captain of Indian cricket team by stalling the induction and/or growth of new talent. But like a true leader, he decided to develop a pipeline, of likes of Virat, who seamlessly glided into the spot once Dhoni’s form started declining.

The Digital age is difficult to decipher. So many aspects have suddenly appeared on the horizon-and they all need to be incorporated in your strategy. I see that some people have the knack to look at the big picture, and weave the pieces together, to go to the very granular fabric, to build successful Digital vision. If you have been endowed with any such extraordinary skills to help organization navigate the Digital chasm, you would also be aware of the fact that your this “Mojo” will not last forever. But then do you need to be afraid about losing your skill 10 years from now and hence not look for a talent pipeline that can do what you were able to do, when the time comes ? You may lose a skill a decade from now but identifying talent that has the capability to take the baton and carry the organization through the next decade is also a skill. Leaders are not just doers and thinkers- they are gardeners as well. And they need to develop a thriving garden of the next generation of Digital talent. With the same (or better) “form”.

Be humble but stand your ground for what is right

We all know about the episode when MSD stood his ground to get the selection comittee drop one of the three senior players, all of them had a glowing record but were very much out of form. One of those senior players was also charged of nepotism where junior players would carry their shoes around after practice to keep those seniors happy. That was impacting the culture and hence the effectiveness of the team. But before MSD, no one wanted to bell the cat. Afterall, don’t we all want to play safe in life? Playing safe keeps us away from any “unecessary” trouble, and keep drawing a salary and have a “fulfilling career”. I am glad MSD did not think like us. His decision to get rid of what was no longer a fit for the team propeled the team into a form that helped India win the Cricket World cup in 2011.

One common trait of all the companies that will emerge as successful in 2030 will be that those successful companies will be willing and ready to disrupt themselves now. And the first step is accepting that you are not where you need to be for the Digital age, that maybe you need to evolve and disrupt the ways you do many things today. But who will call your attention to that ? To be cognizant of the stone that drags you from accelerating forward, you need to develop a breed of brave leaders , who can then develop the next generation that will takeover in 2030. Who can call out what is needed to change for the overall benefit of the organization- and stand their ground,willing to risk their personal gains- for your organization. It is easier to “sail in the system” but it takes true dedication to your organization to “challenge the system”. Unless you develop challengers, you will not be able to generate the disruption required to develop a Digital age leader.

Empathy creates associationand provides ability to solve problems of “others”

Dhoni was extremely down to earth as a Captain. He understood that his “status” of captaincy did not mean that he was above others. He was now actually burdened to be below others, since he was the only one responsible for development of everyone in the team and responsible for the team working cohesively. His humble approach was what got him the affectionate nickname of “Maahi” from team mates and the fans.

I consistently say that empathy is going to be the most important trait in the Digital age. Not only to bond with people. In order to understand and develop effective and world class solutions- in any domain- you need to understand the problem that you are trying to solve. That means you have to identify and associate with the segment (customers/end users) for which you are developing a solution.

Intuition creates simple solutions to complex problems

If you have followed Indian cricket, you have watched numerous videos where MSD shouts to bowlers to bowl in a specific way. Asks fielders to stand in certain positions. As if he can “see” how the batsman will play a certain shot if he is bowled in a certain way. The microphone in the stumps caught his words precisely many times (obviously he did these against countries whose players did not understand Hindi). Some of the ways he suggested sounded weird if you looked them up in Classic Textbook of cricket. But worked like a charm every time.

Why ? The extremely passionate guy that he is- before he became the captain, he had watched hundreds of batsmen play up close, because of his role as a wicketkeeper. And just like the corporate world, not everything happens as defined in textbooks in the world of cricket, he noticed that there are some approaches that are not defined anywhere in the classic cricket training almanacs but will work in reality. That was an intuition formulated by passion and observation.

And every corporate leader needs to develop that “intuition” in the Digital age. That “feeling” that helps you understand what challenges your organization may face in next 2-3 years ? What Digital enablers you need now to get ready for them ? Then there is the “Big picture intution”- that allows you to see how different elements of your organizations are behaving vs how they need to behave. The “Solution development intuition” that helps you understand how to design a creative specific solution that will work.


Views my own.

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