Andrew Strauss under the microscope for his leadership style

January 3, 2011

England cricket has achieved its best result in two decades in retaining the Ashes in Australia. Andrew Strauss and his leadership style deserve a close examination

“And so it came to pass that Strauss led England to a great victory. And the leader received many accolades. Stage one of the drama is complete as the hero-leader enjoys his triumph [January 7th 2011].”

England’s success in retaining the Ashes has brought near-hysterical acclaim in the English media. The unstinting praise is the more satisfying as a large proportion of former England captains still around are commentating for the media. Strauss is given particular credit for his man-management skills. His form as an opening bat in this series provided a bonus, demonstrate someone who leads by example.

And yet…

And yet, there have been muted concerns about the tactical side of his captaincy. From time to time the commentators have been baffled about decisions he makes in the field. The concerns have been expressed in the summaries by various former England captains. I have been following Sky feeds and BBC radio 4 and 5. Their comments seem more in puzzlement than criticism. It reminds me the reaction of football commentators when baffled by a decision by Sir Alex Ferguson: “Doesn’t make sense to me, but who am I to say he’s got it wrong?”

As an England captain myself (in my dreams)

I write as a former England captain myself. In my dreams, that is, and as a member of the ranks of millions of such fantasists. I’m reading something in those statements of the far smaller regiment of real England captains. Sir Ian Botham is ‘puzzled’ when Strauss fails to use his best bowlers quickly enough to break up a promising stand by the Australians (usually Hussey and Haddon). Several former England captains in concert in the recent [December 2010] Melbourne test noticed the gaps that could have been plugged to stop the batsmen taking easy singles. (Didn’t anyone on the field feel able to speak up? That’s part of the story isn’t it?)

When things go wrong

Which leads me to conclude this. When things go wrong. As will happen. The mask of invulnerability will be whipped away from the revered image presented of the current England captain. If he is lucky he will still be seen as a successful captain, but with flaws. This might be said of just about every other previous occupancy of the post. Even the super-captain Mike Brearley came under fire as his batting average plummeted.

The next test

The next test for Strauss, and for several million former captains of England, starts tonight (11.30 GMT, Jan 2nd, 20110). Will losing the toss make a difference?

And the next stage in the drama unfolded

And so it came to pass that Strauss led England to a great victory. And the leader received many accolades. Stage one of the drama is complete as the hero-leader enjoys his triumph [January 7th 2011]. But the journey is not over. The ancients talked of hubris. The Australians talk of the tall-poppy syndrome.

On Pelotons, Tigers, and Leading from the Front in the Tour de France

July 17, 2009



The Tour de France, and the Open Golf Championship both offer insights about leading from the front

Susan asks good questions. Ones I don’t have answers to. This week, as we were watching Tour de France highlights on Eurosport, she broke in with

“How is it the main group always catches the breakaway leader?”

Our cycling friends have been quick to provide us with answers. It seems that sometimes, the front-runner does escape and win. But far more often, the breakaway leader is overtaken by the main group or Peloton.

The peloton is like some monstrous cycling centipede possessing the wisdom of the swarm. The arrangement conserves energy for individuals which has to be sacrificed by anyone who breaks away and becomes a breakaway leader. That provides for numerous tactics and team work.

As we watched, the process looked as if the one-time leader was caught and somehow then trick-cycled backwards through the swarming riders making up the peloton.

A few years ago, Paul Hochman wrote a brilliant journalistic description of how it all works:

Nothing in [American] sports resembles the bizarre dynamic of the cycling peloton, partly because a stage race is less a sporting event than a commodities exchange on wheels. What appears to be a random mass of bicycles is really an orderly, complex web of shifting alliances, crossed with brutal competition, designed to keep or acquire the market’s most valued currency: energy.
Amassing it (i.e., letting as little of it as possible drain away) is the only way for a racer to survive the brutal physical strain of a Tour de France, the metabolic equivalent of running 21 marathons in 23 days. Bikers save energy by riding together in a massive slipstream. Those who save the most energy can “buy” various goods – international glory, TV time, a bright yellow jersey, attractive French girls.

But here’s the key: To thrive in the angry little swarm that is the peloton, enemies often have to stick together and make deals with one another. Cooperation across enemy lines is the centerpiece of a winning game plan. It’s a weird concept to those accustomed to the zero-sum, us-them finality of the walk-off home run or the Hail Mary touchdown pass.
Why play nice with someone who might beat you? Racers in the peloton are not pals; they’re enemies without options.

To which it might be worth mentioning that not winning a stage may not be the same as losing one. The gallant front-runners are still doing a good job for their sponsors whose branding they are sustaining. The breakaway will have been worth a lot of prime-time ads.

The golfing front-runner

How about golf? Is there a peloton principle at work? Not quite. Tiger Woods has a fearsome reputation for winning when he does hit the front.

However, there is general principle which is more statistical than psychological at play. It explains why a relatively lowly-ranked golfer can leap into a substantial lead after the first round of a tournament, and why is almost always caught by many of the pursuing group.

Simple stats can test whether there is a random deviation around an average score. Some high and some low scores are the inevitable result of the expected distribution of scores. The stats can reveal if variations are due to a few exceptionally good (and exceptionally bad) players, or may be no more than a statistical effect.

When more data become available in the next round, there will be similar expected distributions of scores. For the front-runner, there is only one direction to move. Down. The result is that the one-time leader appears to be going backwards. Just like the would-be leader in the Tour de France.

Tiger, and Tiger alone for much of the last decade, plays golf in a way which can’t be explained as a random distribution of scores. If Tiger appears in the lead, the greatest of modern players, the rest of the competition, and almost all watchers of the event reach the same conclusion. Tiger is on his way to another win. Tiger’s scores are those of a statistical outlier.

How about Leadership Behaviours outside Sport?

Just a few speculative thoughts. Might the processes of the Peloton and of statistical theory help explain more mysterious phenomena such as momentum (leader going forward) and loss of momentum (leader going backward)?

And what about the tall-poppy syndrome, or the more folksy principle that pride comes before a fall? Might we have some explanations from tales of the Tour and the Tiger?

Much food for thought on the dynamics of leading from the front, the hero-to-zero phenomenon, and maybe even the tall-poppy syndrome.


The brilliant illustration of a peloton in action is from the social networking site Fark. The post also explains the how and why of the flocking process of Geese.

Nick Faldo and the Tall Poppy Syndrome

September 22, 2008

The much-fancied European team loses the Ryder Cup. Within hours, the recriminations begin against team captain Faldo. The predicted process of cutting down the tall poppy has begun

This is a postscript on the week-end’s post on Ryder Cup leadership. In particular the observation on the tall poppy syndrome …

[S]horthand for the process in which high-profile figures receive celebrity status and at the same time become vulnerable to attacks ‘to bring them down to earth’. The process began when Faldo, someone always likely to be unswayed by popular sentiment, omitted public favourite Darren Clarke, and appeared to have given Ian Poulter (another quirky and gifted personality) preferential treatment even as other players struggled for the automatic places available on the team through tournament rankings.

As it happens, the captain’s pick, Ian Poulter, was the outstanding success of a patchy performance from Europe’s best golfers. That has hardly lessened the post-match criticisms.

Was Faldo a bad captain? Nowhere nearly as bad as he is now being presented.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and well, and maybe needs as much attention as those other pernicious poppy harvests around the world.

Faldo, Azinger and Ryder Cup Captaincy

September 21, 2008

Nick Faldo

Nick Faldo

Paul Azinger

Paul Azinger

Ryder cup captaincy is an unusual kind of leadership. The pre-match picks, the pairings of players, and order of play in the decisive singles all call for judgements of a complex kind and which make a difference to the outcome of the match

The biennial Ryder Cup has become an immense sporting occasion, capturing the attention of non-golf fans in the way Wimbledon is said to capture non-tennis fans in England.

Captaincy calls for a special kind of leadership. Decisions are exposed to the scrutiny of a hundred commentators and millions of viewers, many of whom enjoy the vicious pleasures of casting doubt on the captain’s judgment, and my implication his fitness to lead. That’s not so unusual. Football phone-ins are saturated with emotional and angry view of fand who appear to believe they could do better jobs of running their favoured team than the managers. Some seem to believe anyone could do a better job than the incumbents.

Faldo and Azinger

Faldo and Azinger conform to the expectations of players and public. They need to be former Ryder cup captains, and ideally one of the available greats, playing in sufficiently recent memory in Ryder Cup battles to have iconic status in the minds of the players.

Faldo, and Azinger meet that requirement. Although I have no more to say on it, the selection of the captain is itself the outcome of leadership selection processes worth studying.

Faldo’s potential as captain, his playing career, and high-profile person life have all been extensively covered in Europe. Azinger’s profile has been far less examined, certainly in the UK press coverage. I suspect the converse holds in the USA (confirmation or otherwise of this point welcomed).

In his playing days, Faldo tended to present himself to the public as a somewhat taciturn figure. Public image was way back in his priorities to winning. But rapidly after this retirement he revealed concealed skills as a commentator, albeit still with a quirkiness and self-possession that had little of the professional camera appeaser of a Gary Lineker, a football star who also successfully made the transition to pundit and public figure.

As a player his obsessive style and determination always appeared to be accompanied by an intelligence applied to the multiple facets of winning golf tournaments. If there were pre-match rumblings, it was perhaps because the media expected more truculence and less treacle than usual from him.

Azinger presents himself as a more traditional sporting figure with a duty to treat the public and media with upbeat respect. The style may also be more of a necessity in the USA than in Europe, where the cultural differences of say the Scandinavians, Mediterraneans, and the Anglo-Saxons offer a wide range of personal styles for the public persona. Interviews with the players of both teams have always made fascinating viewing to the culture theorist as much as to the sports fan.

On Captaincy Choices, and Tall Poppies

I have not written much about tall poppies, shorthand for the process in which high-profile figures receive celebrity status and at the same time become vulnerable to attacks ‘to bring them down to earth’. The process began when Faldo, someone always likely to be unswayed by popular sentiment, omitted public favourite Darren Clarke, and appeared to have given Ian Poulter (another quirky and gifted personality) preferential treatment even as other players struggled for the automatic places available on the team through tournament rankings.

The decision-making process

The decision-making processes required of the Ryder Cup captain is massively complex. Faldo seems likely to have operated with little regard for the views of others, and after considerable conscious thought. Other successful captains such as Ian Woosnam have been far more intuitive. One such, on Sky Sport’s treatment was the much-admired earlier English icon Tony Jacklin.

As far as I can see, with little insight into the technicalities of the decision, the process has ultimately to reply on untested beliefs. Decisions are in part judgment calls. But the captains and their decisions are themselves judged on the performances of the players.

The Players

Like millions of others I have watched more of the contest than I expected to. Is it possible to write anything worthwhile about the Ryder Cup without reference to the heroic struggles of the players? Without these heart-stopping dramas upstage, and not as context, commentary is a near irrelevance.