The “MS Dhoni”​ brand of Leadership

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It was about 20 days ago that Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Ex-Indian Cricket Captain and Player, announced his retirement as the Captain. While he will continue to play as a player, this was an iconic moment as one of the most prolific leaders of this era was calling time on what was one of the most incredible chapters in Leadership. 

It took me a while to compose this piece, as I had to reflect on “what it was holistically”. Just to give a context to all my non-cricketing friends – MS (as he is widely known), came from the hinterlands of India with a game (talent) that can at best be called “modest”, with no experience in Leading a team but with the confidence tank filled to the brim – poised to make most of the limited opportunities that came his way. And he did make the opportunities his own, for he went onto play for 12 years playing all formats of the sport, without being dropped even once – more importantly 10 of those years as the National Captain. 

Statistics will go onto immortalize his time in the history, as one of the longest serving leaders of the sport and one of the most successful ones at that – not only for India but also in the world. And that builds the premise of this piece, what made a man from the backwaters of India with no leadership experience to create such an Impact as a leader? And, more importantly how can we draw parallels with his life to create a similar impact in our respective worlds? 

Here are thumbnails of some of the leadership tenets that I absorbed:

Being in the present: Rajdeep Sardesai (eminent Indian Journalist) once asked MS “Good times or Bad times, you never look under Pressure. What is it? Do you do Yoga? Meditation? I often wonder if you practice Buddhism.” He replied

“I don’t practice any of the above things. I love to be in the moment”.

So what is it “being in the moment”? It’s the ability to remove all distractions and build ultimate clarity and focus on the moment and the task at hand. For MS, this meant one day, one game, one innings, one over, one ball, one decision at a time. And as a leader he sought similar amount of focus and clarity from his players – asking them to be clear at the job or task at hand instead of being muddled with multiple thoughts, that can create state of utter confusion. Today’s era is a maze of distractions. We are bombarded with information, decisions and tasks from all around – and this ability to clear the clutter and focus on the present can be a huge virtue to create higher impact with lesser stress. This also helps in refraining from spending too much time thinking in the past and the future. While its essential to reflect and plan, once we get the necessary insights and readiness we need to get fully focused on the task at hand to ensure we execute our plans to the best of our abilities in pursuit of maximum desired impact. Present denotes “doing” thus “being in the present” guarantees impact.

Back your instincts firmly based on acquired intelligence: In 2007 Twenty20 Cricket World Cup (MS’s first assignment as a Captain), in the very first game (Vs Pakistan), the match ended in a Tie. And as was the norm then, the shoot-out used to be a bowl out – wherein 5 bowlers from each team will bowl one ball each at the stumps, and the maximum “clean bowled” wins the game. India fielded one regular bowler and two part timers (non regular bowlers) in the first three bowls, and achieved 3/3. Whereas, Pakistan fielded 3 regulars yet finished 0/3, thus conceding the game. It turned out India was practicing for a potential bowl out situation in the run up to the tournament, and had figured out who, how etc. towards that eventuality. MS as captain knew exactly how to respond to that situation and took the call on who should bowl for India based on what he had seen at the practices. It was an instinctive call based on insights and intelligence he built in the previous week. His decade long leadership tenure is punctuated with several such key decision moments where to the naked eye it appeared he had taken a punt – and on majority of the occasions, they were successful! There have been a lot of chatter, on how lucky he has been or how he has this Midas touch etc., but on taking a closer look one could see – He used his acquired intelligence to build and back his instincts. These were no blind punts, these were calculated risks taken on the basis of intelligence of past experiences. And that’s the noteworthy lesson to take from here – How can we leverage the information, insights and intelligence around us to build strong instincts that help us take calculated risks. For any disruption to happen – risks will need to be taken, the dice will need to be thrown. And leaders will need to build their ability to read & leverage intelligence, to lead by instincts.

Build the right Talent Bus: There are 3 significant phases in MS’s leadership journey

  • Phase 1: 2007 – 2011(Building the team towards winning 2011 World Cup),
  • Phase 2: 2011 – 2015 (Handling the transition of Senior Players to the Generation Next – In fact as things would turn out, he led the transition across two generations effectively to build a team of absolute youngsters for the 2015 world cup and the future beyond),
  • Phase 3: 2015 – 2017 (Transitioning out to hand over the reins to the next captain).

Across all these phases there was a certain plan and clarity that he worked out with this management and establishment, to land the right people – that fitted his scheme of things. Some needed long ropes (prolonged set of opportunities) to figure out the right role for themselves, and some needed additional encouragement to gain the required confidence to succeed at the international stage. Against all odds, and opposition, he stuck to his plan to have the team, that he felt was the best to actualize and execute his plan. This gets accentuated by the amount of successes and impact, the team achieved on the way. Imran Khan, (Former Pakistan Cricket Legend, Captain and Player) too epitomized this facet of a leader – to be able build their own Talent Bus, a concept popularized by the great thinker Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great” , where he says:

“leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.”

Once the bus is right, Great leaders back their talent with opportunities to help them get to the zone of highest impact.

Empower People to Step Up and Own the moment: Michael Hussey (Former Australian Cricketer and MS’s team mate at the Chennai Super Kings) writes in his book Winning Edge: Behind the Scenes of Elite Cricket 

“Dhoni’s incredible calmness around the group had the effect of allowing players to take ownership of their game and find their place within the side. MS was very big on personal responsibility and placed a lot of trust in players to do their job.”

This was one of the most evident aspect in MS’s leadership – whether a new or an experienced player, he pushed them on their individual leadership – to step up, and execute their plans. This helped build some great talent over time – players who put their hand up and relished the accountability and land some significant impact. And in the moments, when the stakes grew high or some players found the heat too much to handle, he would put in the subtle word of encouragement – to help them enjoy and learn from the experience, and not to get worried by the outcome. Somewhere, India’s ability to relentlessly build a strong bench strength over the years, is relative to this approach as the system never destroyed anyone’s confidence. It also differentiated players that had the mindset or attitude to accept this accountability and succeed. Not everyone is cut out for this. Some fell by the wayside. In a modern day context, this can be a valid leadership template to adopt – to create a culture of accountability and empowerment. Its living the concept of “everyone is a leader” more overtly, and enhancing the entrepreneurial mindset.

Composure & Clarity: The “Captain Cool” tag that MS has been bestowed with over the years, is a stuff of legends now. A nation of 1.3 Billion, with almost the entire country being a staunch fanatic of the sport – one can imagine the temperature of emotions and expectations, when the team takes the ground for a game. And for their leader to practically not even show a frown in the toughest of the circumstances, to be able keep calm especially in the clutch moments, to not scream and rant over mistakes by his mates, to be able to disintegrate and unnerve the opposition with his sheer composure – underlines some key qualities of a terrific leader. At Microsoft, lately we have been talking a lot about how managers need to be able to create calm to help teams embrace transformational times. And it’s here, there is a lot to learn and emulate from MS – his ability to:

  • focus on the moment (thereby not stressing on “What if” or “Only If” thoughts),
  • focus on the next step (optimism – what do we do next, how can we do the next step better etc),
  • focus on controllable with utmost clarity and focus (for example: his message to a certain bowler once was “when you are at the top of your run up and you start running in – you should have just one plan, one thought and focus on executing that plan to the best”) and
  • remove performance anxiety to enable people to feel relaxed, enjoy the moment, express themselves and be energized.

Especially in the era of Transformation, there are a lot of Waves of Turbulence. A leader’s ability to create calmness and clarity – relieves the organization of the stress, angst or pressures, and creates a climate of learning, enjoyment, optimism and focus.

Humility and the Level 5 leader: One of the most famously chronicled aspects of MS Dhoni, is his being in the fringes or background or being invisible, whenever his team is huddled in for a celebratory moment of a victorious campaign. In fact there is a moment from Champions Trophy , 2013 that captures this, the best. India won this tournament and post the award presentation, the team was doing the lap of honor. The entire team was going bananas dancing, jumping and posing with the trophy. In one such moments, one of the players extended the trophy to MS asking him to walk with it – but he politely declined with a shy smile as if to say “No thanks. You enjoy and have fun”. There was so much to cheer and celebrate that day – yet this one moment stands well etched in my mind – as a moment of pure humility and inspiration. Another moment was when India won the world cup in 2011. He had just played a masterful knock to win it for the team. It was by all means his moment and no one would have grudged if he stole a few minutes under the spotlight only for himself. But that wasn’t him. The evening belonged to the great Sachin Tendulkar (the iconic Indian Cricketer), for whom this was the last world cup. The team had rallied to win this, in his honor. And MS just melted into the background to let that moment be Sachin’s . Over the years there were numerous such moments of modesty and underplaying self, that epitomized his leadership. 

Jim Collins, in his work Level 5 Leadership : The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve, captures this as a quality at the topmost hierarchical level of leadership – what he terms as Level 5 leader. He describes the Level 5 leader as a study in Duality – Modest and willful, shy and fearless underpinned by an Unwavering Resolve. MS in a way, endorses the Level 5 leadership – that in modern transformative times is such a key need. Leaders at the other four levels in the hierarchy (see the exhibit The Level 5 Hierarchy below) can produce high degrees of success but not enough to elevate companies from mediocrity to sustained excellence. Good-to-great transformations don’t happen without Level 5 leaders at the helm.

(Image Courtesy: Level 5 Leadership : The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve)

Leading from the front: In 2007, MS Dhoni got his first ever leadership role – being the deputy of the then Captain Rahul Dravid. He used to be a belligerent striker of the ball, who would often throw caution to the wind while playing some of the most audacious shots. Yet in the first Test Match on Day 5 India was precariously placed and they needed to hunker down and bat out the day to save the game. We kept losing wickets, and needed someone to play the anchor role. In an unique display of grit, MS played an uncharacteristically defensive innings, completely out of his comfort zone – to put up a valiant fight, thus going onto save the game. This result would go onto energize the team immensely and help them win the series ahead. This was the first of many instances, when MS Dhoni the leader put himself in the line to play a match saving or match winning innings. Over the years, his reputation of being a finisher became a legendary attribute and was one of the key sources of inspiration and energy for his teams. There is nothing more motivating than to see your commander in chief, folding their sleeves and getting into the arena to win battles. Its still the oldest way of inspiring teams, and it works especially when chips are down. It’s the ability to put oneself in the line of fire and bringing it home for the team. Its here a leader earns tremendous respect and admiration of the team.

Leading Transition and Transformation: Two elements that get spoken very little about MS’s leadership is the consistent Transformation that Indian Cricket went through under his leadership and how he effectively managed the transition through some of the darkest periods, to ensure we build a leadership & talent pipeline and more secured & successful future. When he started as a leader Indian Cricket was primarily skill and flair driven. Over the years we transformed into a side that grew in fitness levels, agility, creativity, audacity and overall positive attitude. This was significant transformation and wasn’t possible in a day – this needed relentless focus on Talent, Culture and the Growth Process. Also, (as mentioned in “Build the Right Talent Bus” above) for a leadership that spanned managing across 3 cricketing generations – This needed a Transition Plan, that gave enough time for newer talent to get acclimatized to the International arena and for the next leader to get ready. This was a time when results (especially away from home) weren’t favorable, yet someone had to lead the transition so that the future can be ready. A transition is always a change curve which needs high degree of patience and perseverance from the leadership. MS demonstrated tremendous composure and patience during these transitional phases, thereby being able to relinquish leadership responsibility to the rightful successor at the opportune time. For any leader to see through tough phases of Transition and Transformation, its critical to have a strong objective, patience and a practical mindset. Change can bring severe turbulence with it, and a leader’s ability to hold their own, goes a long way in helping navigate through the turbulent times. Sometimes, these can be overtly tough personally for the leader, but its here the Great ones get differentiated from the ordinary ones. The ordinary ones, would probably chose to leave wanting to keep their reputations and track record intact, the great leaders on the other hand, suspend their personal reputation and work towards playing for the larger cause of building the “Changed” organization.

Not a matter of life and death: MS once famously said:

“I have three dogs at home. Even after losing or winning a series, they treat me the same way”.

In a country where cricket is often equated to religion and the deeds on the field made into matters of life and death – this quote almost makes a mockery of that intensely scrutinized reality by underlining the fact that there is a bigger life out there that is way more important than the professional life we live. At the end it’s just another day of Cricket and it isnt the end of the world if we lose the contest. Ravichandran Ashwin (Indian Cricket Player) in a response to a query on MS’s Leadership style, mentions this “He is cool and calm. He isn’t much vocal. When emotions are running high and everyone is expecting some reaction from the Captain, he has the ability to not react, leave his emotions in his kit bag and go to his room”. This does say a few things –

  1. It helps the team to move on – and not get overtly consumed by a specific moment, especially if it is a tough moment of defeat
  2. It sets an example of creating an intentional difference between “Professional” and “Personal” space

Work Life Balance, is a huge topic of thought in today’s corporate ecosystem. With work being liberated from the confines of a physical professional environment (thanks to ubiquitous technological advances), it is imperative for people to Switch Off and On, to ensure there are other aspects of life that one can cherish. Leaders can be huge inspirations, if they can lead by example in not taking their professional thoughts, worries and issues, to bed with them.

The Larger Purpose: In 2009 in the 2nd Indian Premier League edition, his club Chennai Super Kings finished their campaign in the semi finals. The team certainly looked patchy and the following story is a dressing room narrative (as captured in the below snippet from Hussey’s book Winning Edge: Behind the Scenes of Elite Cricket)

This instance underlined, his approach to his cricket. He wanted his players to get serious beyond the blinding spotlights and find a meaning from the work they do. Its this meaning that would then build the character, culture and community for prolonged & sustained excellence. It was this moment that helped the team to return the next season and become champions, thus kick starting a reign of prolonged success in the years to come. As the great thinker and innovation expert, Clayton Christensen mentioned in his profound piece work “How will you measure your life”

“If you’re not guided by a clear sense of purpose, you’re likely to fritter away your time and energy on obtaining the most tangible, short-term signs of achievement, not what’s really important to you.”

Leaders can play an integral part in elevating the people around them to identify their true north or the larger purpose, that can then set the course for deriving the right meaning, satisfaction and happiness from the work or career we pursue.

Leadership is a complex subject. Zillions of dollars and hours are being spent every day by leading thinkers and experts, in analyzing and devising newer dimensions of Leadership. Yet at the end it is that simple aspect of an individual’s ability to inspire self and a group of humans towards a goal. It all boils down to how we can have the right people in the group, understand them and their needs and inspire them to run for the cause. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the man from the hinterland with a modest talent, loads of confidence and certainly no exposure to the Complex Leadership theories of the leading thinkers and experts – chose to do it his way, following his heart and mind. In doing so, he leaves behind a strong body of leadership legacy and lessons.

Its now left to us – how can we embrace this and find Dhoni in ourselves!


The author of this article is Sheel Majumdar, Director HR at Microsoft Philippines. The article is re-published with the author’s consent.

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