3 ways Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella uses his passion for cricket to shape his leadership

12 April 2018 -

Cricket and leadership

Microsoft’s CEO reveals the biggest leadership lessons he learned from playing cricket

There are three stories from my brief cricketing past that speak very directly to business and leadership, involving principles I use even today as a CEO.

Compete with focus

The first principle is to compete vigorously and with passion in the face of uncertainty and intimidation. In my school cricketing days, we played a team one summer that had several Australian players. During the match, our PE teacher, who acted as a sort of general manager for the team, noticed that we were admiring the Aussies’ play. In fact, we were more than a little intimidated by them.

We had never played against foreign players, and Australia, of course, loomed large in the national cricket psyche. Our teacher and general manager was like an American football coach – loud and very competitive. He was having none of our admiration and intimidation. He began by yelling at the captain to get more aggressive.

I was a bowler and a terrible fielder, but he positioned me at forward short leg, right beside the powerful Australian batsmen, right next to the action. In time, with new energy and new focus, we transformed into a competitive team. It showed me that you must always have respect for your competitor, but don’t be in awe. Go and compete.

Adopt a people-first approach

On reflection, a second principle is simply the importance of putting your team first, ahead of your personal statistics and recognition. One of my teams had a brilliant fast bowler. He was one of the most promising young cricketers in the land. As a tail-end batsman myself, being in the nets against this guy was tough. But he had a self-destructive mindset.

During one game, our captain decided to replace him with another bowler. Soon, the new bowler coaxed the opposing batsman to mishit a ball skyward, an easy catch for our cantankerous teammate now at mid-off, a fielding position 25 to 30 yards from the batsman. Rather than take a simple catch, he plunged both hands deep into his pockets and watched the ball fall right in front of him. We looked on in complete disbelief.

The lesson? One brilliant character who does not put the team first can destroy the entire team.

Boost the confidence of others

A third principle is the central importance of leadership. Looking back, I remember one match in which my off-spin bowling was getting hammered by the opponents. I was serving up very ordinary stuff. Our team captain showed me what real leadership looks like. When my over had ended, he replaced me with himself, even though he was a better batsman than bowler. He quickly took the wicket. Customarily, taking a wicket that efficiently would argue for him remaining in as a bowler. But, instead, he immediately handed the ball back to me and I took seven wickets of my own.

Why did he do it? I surmised he wanted to get my confidence back. He knew that, if I lost my confidence, it would be hard to get it back. That is what leadership is about. It’s about bringing out the best in everyone. It was an important lesson about when to intervene and when to build the confidence of an individual and a team. I think that is perhaps the number-one thing that leaders have to do: to bolster the confidence of the people they’re leading.

How cricket shapes the new Microsoft words / Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO. This is a lightly edited extract from Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, by Satya Nadella (William Collins, 2017)

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