Satya Nadella's secret to management success: Why, cricket, of course!

A comment from Microsoft's new CEO may be just the thing to inspire the next series of books on leadership and management.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

Like many Indians working in the technology sector — or, for that matter, in the US in general — Satya Nadella played cricket growing up. In fact, he was good enough to play for his high school, Hyderabad Public School, and there, he developed a passion for the sport that continues today. Hyderabad, the city, has produced some of the finest batsmen in Indian cricket, such as former captain Mohammad Azharuddin, VVS Laxman, and ML Jaisimha.

In India, where so little has worked for so many, the one thing that has been able to act as a balm for many of the existential traumas that people experience on a daily basis is the game of cricket, bequeathed to us by our erstwhile colonial masters. Of course, Nadella probably required no such balm; he managed to work his way to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee for a masters in computer science after doing his undergraduate in electrical engineering in India. He then did an MBA at the University of Chicago.

Yet, nothing taught him the hard truths about running companies as much as cricket apparently did.

"I think playing cricket taught me more about working in teams and leadership that has stayed with me throughout my career," Nadella said after his appointment as Microsoft CEO was announced.

Now, most of you reading this (outside of the erstwhile British empire) may think of watching cricket as being an experience that is roughly comparable to watching paint dry. We, of the erstwhile British Empire, curiously have the same opinion of baseball, another game that pits bat against ball. Yet, I've found that those fanatics of either game, who have stumbled into watching and trying to understand the other one, find themselves irresistibly drawn to it.

There's a good reason why. Baseball pitches bat against ball, much like cricket. Its pitchers or bowlers are constantly figuring out ways to get the batter or batsmen out with uniquely thrown balls that do one thing or the other, such as the slider or the googly. Deception and guile are what keeps a pitcher or bowler in business. Instinct, bat speed, and timing are bread and butter to a batsman. Invariably, a combination of talent and temperament is what makes winners out of players. If you get into it, it is an endlessly fascinating contest between bat and ball.

The purest form of cricket is the test match. It goes on for a seemingly interminable five days — and this is nectar from the Gods for aficionados like Nadella.

"I love it," Nadella said of cricket tests. "There's so many subplots in it, it's like reading a Russian novel."

Others may claim that the ability to drop everything and watch a five-day game explains in some way the shape of the Indian economy post-independence.

Therefore, the fact that cricket is being espoused by a stalwart of the American corporate hierarchy to be such a fine management training ground may come across as an absurd, even contrived, notion to some. To devotees, the occasional, endless see-sawing of fortunes over five days makes it the best slow-burn thriller in town. A bowler could be bashed around for a few days, but, after discovering a bit of moisture on the fourth, swing the ball in mysterious ways to leave the other side in tatters. Or, a team crumbling against the onslaught of balls hurtling by at 150-160km/h (100 miles per hour) can be sensationally rescued by two dogged batsmen who employ superhuman focus and technique to stave away disaster.

And through all this, a captain has to use every trick in the book, goad, cajole, scold and exhort better performances out of his players; shift tactics when things aren't working; endure the bad times until you can ride a streak of luck far enough to turn things around; motivate fellow team members through their bad times and inspire them to greater heights during the good times; and innovate enough against a tough opponent to try and win—pretty much what every CEO should be doing in her or his company.

Every cricket fan has their favorite memories of epic feats. Mine are: Imran Khan, one of the great fast bowlers of the game, leading from the front to help win the World Cup (in the one-day format) for Pakistan, despite tearing a cartilage in his shoulder two days before the cup started (Khan said he couldn't lift a glass of water for six months after the tournament); India's batsmen VVS Laxman (Nadella's fellow city-mate) and Rahul Dravid, not only rescuing a ragged India, but also providing a bulwark for an incredible win against the best side in the world at the time (and arguably of all times), the Aussies, captained by Steve Waugh. Or, in my book, the greatest test series ever to be played — England versus Australia for the Ashes in 2005, which I watched diligently with my cricket-mad mother-in-law, that involved nine weeks of the most heart-stopping, volatile, and euphoric moments in cricketing history.

And so on.

This is great stuff for management gurus cum authors who have turned previous epic feats into goldmines. The last memorable one was a book on leadership lessons to be gleaned from Ernest Shackleton's impossible, terrifying survival odyssey while trying to become the first to get to the South Pole in a face-off against Amundson and Scott.

But prospective writers of a future cricket-leadership treatise be warned: Much like some of baseball's iconic batters (Barry Bonds) and pitchers (Alex Rodriguez) who are forever stained for their steroid-taking past, cricket too has its fallen angels, such as the formidably talented South African captain Hanse Cronje and Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin, who were both banned from the game for fixing matches.

But hey, maybe these examples are part of what may make that management manual, with its grisly, sleazy narratives of fallen stars and ill-chosen paths such a potential hit. (Hell, come to think of it maybe I'll write it.)

If you really want to write a treatise (without the warts) on how to convert a team of capable but unspectacular people into match winners, then my vote goes to Kapil Dev, who captained the Indian team to an improbable World Cup victory with a bunch of tenacious, low-key players who could both bat and bowl against the best sides in the world at time. This included the world champions, the terror-inducing West Indians, who had at least five fast bowlers who could send it straight to your head at 100 miles per hour.

The win was a script that included selflessness, balls of the human kind and leadership. No wonder that Nadella's most treasured quote is one culled from his favorite writer, Oscar Wilde, which says; "We need to believe in the impossible and remove the improbable."

A good one to remember if anyone wants to potentially write about how cricket saved Microsoft from being discarded into the dust heaps of history in a world gone mad with, not servers or MS Office, but smartphones and tablets. But for that to happen Nadella needs to first get Microsoft back on track in all the areas that it has been misfiring.

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