Leadership lessons from Australia’s cheating cricketers

Ball-tampering scandal shows that operating a closed ‘leadership group’ poses risks

"Devastated" former Australia cricket captain Steve Smith broke down in tears repeatedly as he apologised for his part in the ball-tampering scandal which has rocked his nation. Video: Reuters

 

Steve Smith, the disgraced captain of Australia’s cricket team, made it sound like a run-of-the-mill meeting of the sales team, discussing a plan to wrest market share from a rival company: “We spoke about it and thought it was a possible way of getting an advantage.”

What Smith and an undefined “leadership group” were in fact debating was how best to beat South Africa. Rather than playing within the rules and spirit of the game, they opted for ball-tampering – altering the surface of the ball so it moves in the air in unexpected ways. As a cowed Smith put it: “Obviously it didn’t work.”

That is an understatement. The tamperer, a young player called Cameron Bancroft, was caught by television cameras using tape to rough up the ball. The pictures were broadcast inside and outside the ground.

“Once I was sighted on the screens, I panicked quite a lot,” Bancroft told the same extraordinary press conference, at which he and Smith confessed all.

The full consequences are still to unfold. Both Smith and Bancroft have been fined. Smith has stepped down temporarily and been banned for one match. Heavier punishment may follow.

If you don’t follow cricket – and perhaps even if you do – this may all seem trivial. But the same forces that were in play when Australia’s experienced cricketers hatched their plan can affect all organisations.

One risk is operating a closed “leadership group”. Senior members of any team accumulate a natural authority. But, in the case of Australia’s leadership group, there was little leadership and much groupthink.

Unchallenged ideas

If you always huddle together with just a few senior colleagues, all of whom think the same way, then some of the unchallenged ideas you hatch are bound to be bad. In the heat of a competitive battle, a few may even be ethically wrong.

Think back a few years to Facebook’s admission that it had secretly hired a public relations group in the United States to generate stories criticising Google’s approach to privacy.

Or, more seriously, consider British Airways’s “dirty tricks” campaign against Virgin Atlantic in the 1990s, which ended with BA paying damages to the rival airline.

“Shame”: Australia’s print media react to news of the ball-tampering scandal. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
“Shame”: Australia’s print media react to news of the ball-tampering scandal. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

There are ways of mitigating the impact of groupthink. Diversity is one. Australia’s male cricket team obviously could not have appointed women to their player-only leadership group, but Smith could have made a habit of involving team members who he knew held different views. He could even have talked to the whole team.

A second potentially malign force is deference. Bancroft said he was merely “in the vicinity” of the leadership group’s discussion, and was not ordered to cheat. But the young player was put in the invidious position of having to countermand the unethical plan of his boss and senior colleagues.

His press conference performance reminded me of the belated self-criticism of Oliver Schmidt, a former Volkswagen executive involved in the conspiracy to cheat on diesel emissions tests.

He claimed he had agreed to follow a script agreed by his managers for a meeting with a California regulator. “I must say I feel misused by my own company,” he wrote to a judge in December before being fined and sentenced to jail.

The third day of the third Test match between two cricket teams is hardly a life or death situation so the parallel is inexact, but teams in high-pressure situations, such as pilots or medical staff in hospital operating theatres, have learned to avoid dangerous deference to authority. Aviation and, to a lesser extent, healthcare have developed cultures in which even junior team members are encouraged to speak up in the interests of passenger or patient safety.

Outright cheating not only distorts the outcome for the cheater, but also prompts others to behave in the same way. Such pursuit of worst practice ends up polluting the whole culture.

Errors of judgment

Former England cricket captain turned psychoanalyst Mike Brearley points to a wider truth when he writes in On Form about the ruinous impact of rampant competition: “In the extreme, if competition becomes the unique value, why should teams not resort to violence and the infliction of bodily harm on rivals if that ensures success?”

Smith and his Australia team-mates were rightly contrite about their errors of judgment. But then images of their misdeeds had just been broadcast in close-up and replayed in slow motion to their own appalled fans.

Companies could also learn from such transparency.

I cannot imagine they will replace the share price tickers in their lobbies with screens showing the minute-by-minute actions of their executives. But imagine if the leadership group always acted as if shareholders, customers, relatives and the public could scrutinise its behaviour on gigantic monitors. It might make those leaders think twice before indulging their worst instincts.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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