Don’t tell them… trust them!

Back in school, I used to be mad about Cricket! And I was so darn into the sport that I seriously considered becoming a professional cricketer. And yes, having the “goods to deliver” did help. It wasn’t really a shot in the dark*.

Nonetheless, as much as I enjoyed playing cricket I also appreciated the learning I’ve had playing the sport. And almost all of it happened not in a sporting complex or in the “nets”  but in my neighborhood playground.

It was at the local park where I learned my first lessons in the art and science of leadership. When you captain a team, you don’t have an option but to lead from the front. Even when the chips are down or when facing a hopeless situation, you have to keep your chin high. My job, after all, was to cheer my team up and ensure that they don’t mentally tune themselves out until the last ball.

And during my stint as the captain of my team, I’ve had the pleasure of having at least five matches that were tied due to our sheer belief that we could not lose hope. Our game wasn’t over until the last ball was bowled. There’s something magical about not losing and not winning a match… because almost all the time you would crawl up from an impossible position to not give any satisfaction to the opposition.

But even greater is the power of believing that we can turn things around if we just give our best.

The most astounding aspect, now that I look at it, is that I never dictated terms. My team wasn’t functioning with a brain and 11 bodies but with 11 brains and as many bodies. And that’s what gave us a winning edge. Sure, our team didn’t have a stellar record by any measure. We lost around 20% of our matches… but then my team wasn’t the most talented either. We were bits and pieces at best but together we chipped in to make an impact.

The best part was that I didn’t have to put on a mask because all I ever did was coach people. I simply trusted them to do well. And it worked.

Yeah, I know. Nobody gives a damn now. But I do. Unbeknownst to my players and other teams in the playground… I learned one of my biggest strengths that makes me who I am today. Who would have thunk?

Transitioning over to the “real world” (as my parents would describe it) make it much easier to take up responsibility and lead from the front. The sport taught me exactly how to leverage my natural strengths to a greater cause — winning. Eh, yes, it wasn’t the world championship. But to my team, it might’ve been something even bigger. And for a leader that’s what counts.

Just like what I did in the local park, I continued to coach, lead and trust people for their abilities in organizations. And it simply worked. My bosses told me to be a little more assertive, without giving me any reasons as to why I should. So, I continued to be myself and my team kept winning.

Honestly, at times, I almost felt like an imposter trying to project myself as a winning “leader” when I had the advantage of having the most talented team among the lot.

One of my former colleagues once mentioned his reason to perform better when he was working with me — “Sunil, you never asked anything from us. You assumed we would take ownership. And out of guilt, we ended up being accountable for our actions. Because we didn’t want to let you down.

That was flattering but woefully surprising and profound. Because I never thought myself as a leader. I was just doing my job and was trying to do my best. Moreover, my values do not allow me to get in anyone’s way. I simply felt people could do better if they’re less interrupted. Because I personally never liked to be interrupted or be told to do what every step of the way.

Now that I’m learning the art and science of coaching, I realize that I have been coaching people all along. Sure, I’ve had my share of struggles. I’ve been stern at times. I’ve tried to force a solution when things just weren’t working out. I’ve been distracted and frustrated with office politics.

Those were oddballs. Yes, I did temporarily lose faith in leadership as a practice… but I had to embrace it back again. Because as a leader, we can’t be in control at all times. I’m a tad wiser now and know that I can’t hope to be in control anytime! Thinking in that direction and foolish and a waste of time.

But whoever said leading was easy was a moron. It’s not. And coaching people to discover their potential so that they perform at their best is even more difficult!

I don’t recommend a completely “hands-off” style of leadership to anyone. It works for me because that’s what comes to me naturally. I’m not comfortable telling people what to do. I trust them to do well. If things go wrong we talk and try to get to the root of the challenge. It’s as simple as well.

Surprisingly, most people don’t even know if something’s even wrong. And that’s the leadership opportunity most people miss out on.

Don’t tell them, trust them.

* Why I couldn’t make it as a cricketer is a whole different discussion… let’s save it for some other time… 

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