• Priya Sharma Shaikh

Dhoni & Kohli: Contrasting leadership styles


I haven't had too much of a love affair with the country's favourite sport, but because my husband I huge fan of the game and watches every format of the game avidly from pre-game banter all the way to the presentation ceremony, there is enough and more that I know about the game. My observation, like many others I'm sure, is that the captaincy of the Indian men’s Cricket team, is one of the most difficult jobs to do. In fact I dare to say that the stress and scrutiny often goes beyond that reserved our politico. The Captains in particular have always evoked strong emotions from their fans and followers of the game. They are either revered or reviled and sometimes both depending on the results of the game on a particular day. Also, because of the popularity of the game in India and their consistent presence in the public eye, these captains have also become role-models for youngsters across the country.

Two of the biggest cricketers to come out of India in this century are Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli. While Dhoni captained the Indian cricket team for almost a decade in various formats, it is Kohli who now leads the team in all formats. Both of them are brilliant individual sportsmen who’ve also proven themselves to be great leaders on the cricket field. Especially Dhoni, in whose tenure India won the ODI and T-20 World cups and also became the number 1 side in Test Cricket for the first time. It is still a little early for Kohli but under his leadership too the team is flourishing and has performed exceptionally well in the last couple of years in all formats of the game.

The most interesting thing to note in them is the difference in their personalities and therefore, their leadership styles. In fact, looked at superficially, they appear pictures in contrast. Dhoni, the ice-cool leader who doesn’t display even a flicker of emotion on the field and calmly goes about his job whatever the match situation, while Kohli is a veritable bundle of explosive emotions stacked one over the other, ready to burst at the slightest provocation. Dhoni was always an elder statesman, calm and collected even when he was young, while Kohli’s early career left an impression of a highly talented but volatile personality. Kohli has since tempered down, maybe partly influenced by Dhoni, but still retains much of his fiery persona on the field.

It’s almost been two years since Kohli started leading the team and it’s interesting to note the new style of leadership on display. For almost a decade we’d grown used to seeing the calm Dhoni manage his team without a fuss. He led from behind, letting his players play as they deemed fit, never imposing himself. His presence was however always felt, and the players never failed to acknowledge the influence he had on their game. Most wicket-keepers are known for exuberance, but not Dhoni. He preferred to recede into the background once the match was done.

The aftermath of the World Cup victory of 2011 is a great point in case. It was a match that he’d won for the team. He had, as the saying goes, led from the front and finished the match off with an imposing six. But once the game was done and the cup was in his kitty, he withdrew and let his team take the limelight. He was happy to be just another member of the team, willing to soak in the atmosphere as the other younger members went berserk with joy.

The subdued approach is not for Kohli. He wears his heart on his sleeve and leads in a similar fashion too. He’s the most excitable player on the field and captaincy hasn’t changed that. He’s never out of the game and wants to be seen and heard at all times. It doesn’t come from some deep-seated insecurity or the feeling to show-off. It’s innate to him, that’s who he is. If there’s an opposition player to be sledged, trust Kohli to be there doing it. Look at the child-like joy on his face when his bowlers pick a wicket, the send-offs he gives batsmen from the opposition, the way he rallies the crowd prompting them to raise their voices. He leads from the front, everywhere and at all times.

To someone who’s not been following the game, he would appear as an upstart, a rebel. But for those who’ve kept apace with his dazzling career, he’s the brightest star in the cricketing firmament today. He’s already cemented his place as one of the greatest ODI batsmen of all time and he still has a long way to go. Fears of captaincy burdening him and suppressing his natural game have been done away with. If anything, his performance has only improved in the post-captaincy period. And so has the team’s performance.

There could not be two more contrasting characters, two more different leaders. Both have however being effective. Their players vouch by them. So what do we learn from them?

That there’s no fixed template for leadership! You don’t HAVE TO conform to any one style of leadership. Everyone has a core personality and trying to act in a way not in sync with that core will never lead to success, either yours or your teams. I’m not implying that Dhoni or Kohli haven’t adapted or evolved. They have, and so will you have to. But not at the cost of suppressing your core instincts. Build on your strengths, they are what will take you far. But don’t be arrogant and self-obsessed. One of the greatest skills that Kohli has, is the ability to learn fast and change, if it helps his game. There is an ego but that doesn’t come in the way of asking for help if it’s for the better of the team or the game.

Dhoni and Kohli are, in fact, probably the greediest players when it comes to seeking knowledge to improve themselves.

The contrasting visible personalities of Dhoni and Kohli hide the deep seated similarities that bind them together. A will to succeed, great work ethic, extreme dedication and focus, loyalty to their team and a deep abiding love for the game are characteristics common to both.

They might appear different on the field but what makes them great leaders of the men in blue are these common threads. It would be a mistake to get carried away by the contrasts and ignore the commonalities, for what makes them powerful leaders are these very traits, not their public personas. Cheers to them and India!

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