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Michael Vaughan on Leadership

As a bit of light relief on my commute on the train, I’ve been reading Michael Vaughan’s autobiography, Time to Declare (2009).

It is a typical sportsman’s autobiography, in the informal folksy style that ghost writers use to try to capture the voice of the nominal author. At first glance there might not appear much that a project manager might learn, but of course you don’t remain England cricket captain for very long if you are not a good leader. Getting the best out of the very disparate set of personalities thrown together solely by sporting ability is not a skill everyone has.

The book runs through his career in historical sequence, and does not glance aside much from that timeline to look at specific aspects of the game or leadership, but there is one chapter On Captaincy which has a few interesting items. The “job involves being, in no particular order, a diplomat, strategist, spokesman, babysitter, actor, selector and disciplinarian” (p205) – a PM has to be all those, too.

Reading the whole book does reveal several threads running through it. One of these is vision – Vaughan’s overwhelming goal was to improve the team’s performance to compete against the then all-conquering Australia (after 15 years of regular heavy defeats against them), which of course culminated in his Ashes triumph in 2005. In the first couple of years of his captaincy there is a theme of how best to build up the team, particularly how best to handle removal of the old guard. He wanted to replace the older ‘scarred’ players (or at least, retaining no more than one) with younger, hungrier ones who were not intimidated by previous demolitions by the Aussies, but gradually and at the right time for the players and the team.

There was also a thread on making sure the team dynamic is right. It’s not just ability that counts, but also personality – the team has to gel as a whole. Some characters need careful handling, but Vaughan’s view was that while you don’t want too many primadonnas, you do need some to add spark. The same is very much true in IT.

Other things I noted:

Vaughan learned some lessons from observing his predecessor, who could be grumpy under pressure, and whose sometimes abrasive nature didn’t always get the best out of people. Vaughan made a conscious effort to be approachable whatever his own feelings. He also emphasised the need for personal security, to enable people to express themselves (i.e. perform to full potential) without fear of failure.

On arrival of a new coach (Moores), Vaughan criticised his Positive Mental Attitude theories as being over the top. Moores liked everyone to use positive language at all times. Vaughan’s view was that a bit more honesty was sometimes needed “in leadership positions you need people who are natural and stay on the level whether you win, lose or draw” (p332) and prefers appropriate behaviour in response to situation – whether a rollicking, being upbeat, or making a joke.

Vaughan was also reflective on how he was dealt with pressure at times towards the end of his career – how he used to note it in a diary, and his unhealthy tendency to bottle it up.

Finally, given that the England Management briefly opted for Pietersen to succeed Vaughan with explosive results, it was also interesting that when he ran through his team of 2005 to illustrate how each was best managed, of his eventual successor Strauss he simply said “needs no management at all”. A sign of a future leader in any team?

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