Is Anil Kumble as good? Is Virat Kohli that bad?

The truth lies somewhere in between. There is merit in listening to a story from every perspective. Some lessons on leadership may just emerge

Indrajit Gupta

[Anil Kumble (left) and Virat Kohli; Kumble's photograph by Royal Challengers Bangalore under Creative Commons; cropped from original. Kohli's photograph by himanisdas under Creative Commons; cropped from original]

If you’ve been among those following the Big Story on the so-called Virat Kohli-Anil Kumble spat, chances are, your sympathies perhaps lie with one of India’s all-time cricketing greats, Anil Kumble. Mine certainly did. And why not?

Kumble had earned his spurs and the credentials to coach the national cricket team over the years. So, when news of ugly differences between the captain of Team India and the coach started to emerge a few days ago, I was among those riled. I was among those who imagined the “Bad Boy” of Indian cricket, Virat Kohli, is at it again.

This notion though was challenged when I engaged in conversations with professional coaches and leadership experts from the Founding Fuel network. Their questions had me stumped. They unanimously asked: Was Kumble destined to fail? Was he the wrong man for the job?

It all started on May 31 when The Indian Express reported about a rift between the captain and the coach. Hell broke loose even as the next day, it followed up with another piece that suggested Kumble wasn’t keen to stay on as coach after his term ended.

Since then conversations on social media have pushed cricket off the ground and action in the Champions Trophy to the sidelines. Captain Kohli poked the bear by maintaining it wasn’t unusual for the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) to institute a search process for a new coach within a year of a coach taking charge. All of this is surrounded by much speculation and innuendo about how other senior players too are unhappy with the coach.

If all this wasn’t enough, on June 2, Ramchandra Guha, eminent author and cricket historian, announced his resignation from the Supreme Court appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA). It was accompanied by a scathing letter to Vinod Rai, head of the CoA and raised multiple issues.

He questioned the superstar culture in Indian cricket and took swings against giants from Sunil Gavaskar, to MS Dhoni, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly. An emotional outburst from Gavaskar followed.

This isn’t the first time that a coach-captain spat in Indian cricket is out in the open. The Ganguly-Chappell controversy was perhaps messier and more cantankerous. But the timing of this one seems utterly perplexing: the Indian cricket team has had a blindingly good run across all forms of the game. Given this side’s bench strength, team selection is proving to be an embarrassment of riches. By any which yardstick then, talk of replacing the national coach sounds misplaced.

Meanwhile, stung by the criticism, even the hide-bound BCCI swung into damage control mode. It is entirely possible that gag orders will be imposed on the team. And if Kohli’s last press briefing was any indication, a serious attempt will be made to put the genie back in the bottle. The full story will eventually emerge. But the question is, can the relationship between the coach and the captain be repaired, when the fabric of trust has been torn? Or is better to plan a quiet, dignified separation after the Champion’s Trophy is over?

Misadventures like these aren’t uncommon in business too where coaching is often seen as essential to leadership development. While the coaching industry is growing—with multiple training institutions churning out coaches—no one has researched and documented their impact on leadership development in India.

Extracting the full value from a coach remains a hit-and-miss process. But it needn’t be that way. Provided we are ready to critically examine the coaching relationship and what makes it work. And that’s where what transpired between Kohli and Kumble and the web of intrigue surrounding the BCCI and CoA provides some nuggets of insights that might offer food for thought for business leaders and coaches alike.

Look for coaching credentials: Go back to the time BCCI decided to ask the Cricketing Advisory Committee, a panel of the country’s biggest former superstars—Tendulkar, Ganguly and VVS Laxman—to pick the national cricket coach. They had an array of big names to choose from including the former team director Ravi Shashtri, Tom Mody and Praveen Amre.

The choice was unanimous. Anil Kumble. The selectors had played with him as a player and knew him in his avatar as a captain as well. His reputation as a cricketer was formidable. Besides, they knew him as a friend. The news was greeted with much joy by cricket enthusiasts in India.

But when looked at from another perspective, it is much like the CEO bringing in one of his golfing buddies—and a former CEO—to coach one of his key lieutenants, says Prakash Iyer, author, former CEO and a leadership coach himself. In such cases, invariably familiarity trumps any serious efforts at scrutinising coaching credentials.

Even in Kumble’s case, for instance, it isn’t clear if any of the selectors spoke to the teams that Kumble had coached. Or asked any of the hard questions that ought to have been asked. If that scrutiny was done, perhaps the Big Three may have spotted some red flags.

For instance, soon after his stint as coach of Mumbai Indians, the team won the 2013 IPL edition. Why, then, was he replaced by Ricky Ponting as the Head Coach? And why did he hang around until 2015? If he was such a fine coach, why did he have to be replaced? Did any of the selectors ask for feedback from Rohit Sharma, captain of the Mumbai Indians team and a key member of the Indian national team as well?

The fact is that Kumble’s credentials as captain and cricketer—and that as a clean public administrator—were impeccable and no one seriously reflected on his credentials as a coach. It was assumed he would do well. This is a mistake many business organisations repeatedly make when they bring in former illustrious CEOs as coaches, says Iyer.

Flex your coaching style: There’s an inherent problem when you choose a former CEO as a business coach. Many of them tend to rely on their experience. This means they get into a “telling” mode as opposed to listening, sensing and responding.

The role of the coach, as this post by Kavi Arasu, Founding Fuel’s Director, Learning & Change, points out, is to hold the space for the team, or the captain, to figure out better alternatives to solve the problems they face. A good coach tends to focus on serving the client by tapping into the client’s resourcefulness, not impose ideas on the captain or the team.

In Kumble’s world, method, discipline and protocols have always been the watchwords. That’s the kind of person he is. People who know him say that his calm exterior hides an aggressive personality. Newspaper reports suggest that he would enforce discipline (no late nights), no let-up in practice sessions and follow a method in picking the side, arrange practice sessions or keep time aside for group reflections after a crucial game.

Now, consider Ravi Shastri. He is in many ways the exact opposite. Led by instinct, he encourages free expression and is anything but a disciplinarian, even in his playing days, says K Ramkumar, founder and CEO of Leadership Centre, a leadership consulting firm.

Now, there’s nothing right or wrong in either approach. However, the fact that Kohli had openly supported Shastri and felt that he had done a good job with the side offers some clues to the style that he may have preferred.

A good coach must flex his style depending on the client’s need, says Alan Meyne, founder, Coaching Lighthouse, a leading coach training firm, based in Bengaluru. And in almost every case, one-size-fits-all strategies seldom work. Whether Kumble was willing to adapt to Kohli’s style is anybody’s guess.

Precedents exist. Greg Chappell fell out with Ganguly and John Wright succeeded as a coach in India. There was much to be learnt from their contrasting styles.

Coach as a servant leader: Many critics describe Captain Kohli as impetuous, immature and overly aggressive. Incidentally, so was Ricky Ponting before he went on to be one of Australia’s finest captains. There’s one word to describe them: mavericks.

Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Ganguly were also in the same mould. The reason why they’ve been successful is their bold attitude to the game—and their courage to experiment and deliver. If you curb those natural instincts, they’d seldom be as effective.

In the business world too, it is often a delicate balancing act when it comes to managing mavericks. That’s where you need a strong CEO who combines well with the HR head to have that difficult conversation with a maverick executive occasionally, says Ramkumar. It is about having the confidence to walk into their room and have that chat. Not to curb their freedom of expression, but to ensure that their individuality does not come at the cost of the organisation. That’s oftentimes a challenge in many organisations, where the HR head doesn’t have the ability to influence his senior colleagues. And it stymies the leadership development process.

In the Indian cricket system, or for that matter in any system, you can’t have two hands on the steering wheel. Unlike the concept of the manager in the English football system, the captain is the person who takes the key decisions. The coach needs to support the captain and provide him advice, based on his power of observation, that he needs to strategise and execute.

Smart business organisations understand this well. They realise that credentials alone are not enough. You need chemistry between the coach and coachees. And typically, along with presenting a shortlist of three or four coaches, it makes sense to set up a get-to-know meeting between the two.

In Kohli’s case, it is unclear if his views were sought by the selection committee before Kumble’s appointment, says Iyer. And that is possibly why there are unconfirmed reports that Kohli had approached BCCI with adverse feedback on Coach Kumble. Notwithstanding Ram Guha’s withering criticism about a superstar culture, given Kohli’s impact on the game in India, it isn’t difficult to imagine which side BCCI would lean, if it push comes to shove.

The need for tact: At the best of times, the environment at BCCI is akin to stepping into a snake-pit. So, while being ethical and a straight-talker is a good quality to have, a coach must know how to manage all the key stakeholders and be adept at dealing with the web of intrigue. It isn’t clear if Kumble was able to display the tact that is needed in such circumstances. Especially with two separate power centres in the CoA and the BCCI. If you’re perceived to lean towards one or the other, you could find yourself in deep waters, even before you realise it.

Back in 2010, Kumble, Venkatesh Prasad and Javagal Srinath attempted an overhaul of the state cricketing board in Karnataka, and rid it off politics and sloth. They perhaps had the right intent. Yet after a year, they found themselves outwitted by the political chutzpah of the Brijesh Patel-Sudhakar Rao duo. Unable to deal with vested interests, they quit in a huff.

Also, it isn’t clear if Kumble was set up for failure when he was invited by the CoA to present a long-term vision. His overly aggressive attempt to negotiate compensation issues may have riled the powers-that-be at BCCI even further.

Coaches have to deal with such issues inside organisations all the time. For instance, dealing with sponsors throws challenges, says Meyne. Very often, they tend to give confidential feedback about the coachee before the coaching assignment. It could prejudice the coach.

The best way to deal with such situations is to ask if that same feedback has been given to the coachee in the past. Many times the answer is no. A follow-up question then could be: What do you want me to do with the information? That ensures that the coach does not develop a bias even before the coaching has begun. But the sponsor’s feedback is then taken as just another input.

While the coach-captain dynamics are critical, the coach must carefully manage the equations within the team. For instance, you might have instances of team members cribbing to the coach about the captain’s style. One shouldn’t take sides in such cases, but instead encourage the need for openness and transparency in the team.

The gentle art of giving feedback: There’s one other important issue. While the primary role is to listen and advance the client’s agenda, a good coach needs to, on occasion, question and challenge status quo. Yet this isn’t possible without first developing a relationship of trust with the client. There is a temptation to play God. But launching too early into the questioning mode can have disastrous consequences. Be sure to cement the trust first, says Meyne. And this may well have been the case with Kohli’s relationship with Kumble.

Besides, dealing with an alpha male like Kohli carries its own challenges. There are many CEOs who show the same impulses, says Meyne. Many of them are internally referenced. In the sense, that they derive information to assess themselves usually from within. Such people have such high self-confidence that they seldom look for external feedback. In fact, for them, feedback is anathema. They take decisions based on their gut. So how does a coach advance the client’s agenda? The trick, in such cases, is to surface and provide enough points of data—they’re usually open to evidence—and make the client interpret it himself. That is far more effective than relying on your own experience as a leader-coach to ‘tell’ the client what to do.

So, will BCCI and all the parties concerned be wiling to learn from this setback? The future of Indian cricket will be a lot brighter if these issues are addressed squarely and not brushed under the carpet.

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Jn Amrolia on Jun 16, 2017 7:12 a.m. said

Interesting write up. Wonder how a Kumble-Dhoni combination would have worked.

About the author

Indrajit Gupta
Indrajit Gupta

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Indrajit Gupta is a business journalist and editor with over two decades of experience. He was the Founding Editor of the Indian edition of Forbes magazine. Within four years of its launch, Forbes India became the most influential magazine in its space.

He is the co-founder and director at Founding Fuel.

He has served in leadership positions at many of the leading media brands in the country. Before taking up the assignment to start up the India edition of Forbes magazine, Gupta was the Resident Editor of The Economic Times in Mumbai and before that, the National Business Editor of The Times of India.

Over the years, Gupta has built a reputation for grooming talent and creating highly energised and purposeful newsrooms. He has interviewed several leading global thought-leaders and business leaders including CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Wayne Brockbank, Sumantra Ghoshal, Carlos Ghosn and Nitin Nohria, and also led cutting-edge joint research-based projects with McKinsey & Co, The Great Place to Work Institute, Boston Consulting Group, KMPG and Coopers & Lybrand.

He won the Polestar journalism award in 2010 and was awarded the Chevening fellowship by the British Foreign office in 1999. Gupta is an alumnus of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai and a B.Com (Hons) graduate from St Xavier's College, Calcutta.

Gupta teaches a course on Business Problem Solving at his alma mater. He writes a column named Strategic Intent in Business Standard’s edit page. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and two young daughters.

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