Mahendra Singh Dhoni became trailblazing leader by moving beyond 'the right way'

What are the qualities of a leader? Can a leader really be groomed? Can these qualities be acquired? On searching Amazon for books on leadership, you get more than 8,000 results. So quite a few people do indeed believe then that leadership qualities can be taught and acquired.

MS Dhoni never read any of those books. He didn’t even have any experience of leading a team at first-class or List A level. By his own admission, in one of his earlier interviews as captain, he had never even watched a game of cricket from the first till the fiftieth over. He wasn’t quite the keen student of the great game in the “eat cricket, sleep cricket” mould. Then how could he lead a rookie national team in his first serious assignment to one of Indian cricket’s greatest wins in the 2007 T20 World Cup?

File photo of MS Dhoni. Reuters

File photo of MS Dhoni. Reuters

You often learn the greatest things when you are not deliberately seeking out the lesson. Don Bradman was throwing a golf ball at the base of a water tank and hitting it back with a stump as a ten-year-old boy. He didn’t know back then that this little game he invented is giving him the greatest hand-eye coordination the game has ever seen.

Since his early days, Dhoni played every game of cricket with complete intensity and drifted away as soon as the game got over. Little did he know back then that he was acquiring one of the most important qualities you need as captain of the Indian cricket team. The ability to walk away and switch off your cricketing brain is indispensable in handling the unreal pressure of expectations from Indian fans.

Dhoni never got proper cricket coaching in his formative years, which turned out to be another blessing in disguise. It helped him stay original in his methods. You can’t become a trailblazer if you are taught “the right way” to do everything.

Despite his many successes, a few critics still attribute Dhoni’s success to luck. He isn’t the first great leader whose contributions are downplayed in this manner. With great leaders, it is often impossible at times to figure out what makes them tick, even for an astute observer.

It’s easier to brand their success as a fluke if it happens once. If it keeps on repeating, then you can always blame it on their luck or admit that perhaps they have an 'X-factor'. In great leaders, that X-factor is often an ability to influence people around them without giving them the impression of being controlled. It works like an invisible hand. Under such leaders, you improve without being aware of the influence.

Dhoni’s X-factor as a leader was his sense of calm on the field and in the dressing room. Losing a game of cricket was never a catastrophe for him. It helped his team stay relaxed and continue to play fearlessly even after a loss. If you look at the highlights from India’s 2007 World T20 campaign, you can’t help noticing the smiles and the sense of camaraderie in the team.

They weren’t just thrust into responsibilities, they were all having fun while executing their skills. Even in a tense bowl out, when arch-rivals Pakistan had tension written all over their faces, a young Indian team was having a whole hearted laugh throughout. The team was playing hard but still treating it as “just a game”, a reflection of the Mahi-way of doing things.

Dhoni’s other great influence was in setting a fitness benchmark for the players. In 2008, he asked selectors to keep the slow movers out of India’s ODI team for the CB series in Australia. For him, fielding and running between the wickets were critical parts of the game, where his team must excel.

Over the years, you would never see Dhoni getting angry over a bowler bowling four wides in an over, but if you don’t attack a ball while fielding, then no one can save you from Dhoni’s ire, or worse a taunt that will be picked up by the stump microphone and heard by millions.

Virat Kohli has already inherited Dhoni’s fitness mantra for success and has raised the bar even higher. In the recently concluded Test series against England, India wasn't just the better team in terms of cricketing skills, they were the fitter team as well, something that has rarely been seen before in teams from the sub-continent.

Dhoni has always been his own man with his decision making. Whether it’s his instinctive bowling changes or his decision to quit Test cricket that even his teammates weren’t aware of till the very last moment. Firstpost had argued earlier that Kohli as captain across all the formats may help establish India as the dominant team of this era.

Dhoni’s team wasn’t in turmoil by any means but this bunch had the potential to achieve even greater heights with more consistency in leadership. Always the team man, Dhoni realises this better than most of us and he timed his decision to quit limited over captaincy perfectly. This will allow Kohli to settle into the role before the Champions Trophy and give him ample time to plan his 2019 World Cup campaign.

Former Indian coach, Gary Kirsten, once said, “I will go to war with Dhoni by my side”. As Kohli starts to take over as full-time captain of the team, he couldn’t have asked for a better ally and counsel than Dhoni by his side. With the wise old head of Kumble in the dressing room, this team already boasts of possibly the best think tank in World Cricket.

While we have our sights set on the Champions Trophy and the World Cup in 2019, Kohli’s captaincy has already added extra interest to the upcoming ODI and T20 series against England. Better things may come in future, for now, let’s focus on getting off to an auspicious start.

Catch the live updates and ball-by-ball commentary of the 1st ODI between India and England at Pune here

Published Date: Jan 05, 2017 10:17 AM | Updated Date: Jan 15, 2017 14:15 PM

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