Professor Chris Styles

Today is a big day.

Yes, it’s the day that the Allan Border Medal for Australia’s premier cricketer will be awarded. Allan Border, or ‘AB’, is known for a lot of things, including a number of cricketing records.  But perhaps the biggest thing he is known for is being the reluctant captain that took over in a time of crisis in the mid 1980s.

For those of us around at the time, the tearful resignation of the then captain, Kim Hughes, that lead to AB’s appointment, will be remembered as a pivotal point in Australian cricket.  The turnaround that followed took time, but it was pronounced and long lasting.  

Given the captain of the Australian cricket team is supposedly the second most important job in the country, perhaps there are some lessons to be learned by the current Labor Government.

When AB took over as captain Australian cricket was at a low point.   The team had experienced many deep defeats. A rebel tour of South Africa was about to happen and the mighty West Indies had inflicted wounds that were hard to heal.  But over the next decade Australian cricket experienced a turnaround that set it up for a decade of dominance.  AB’s leadership was a critical component.

Irrespective of who wins the Labor party’s challenge today the focus will be on how the floundering organisation – that is not unlike the Australian cricket team of the 1980s – can begin the road to recovery. What lessons can ABs leadership provide them and others in a similar situation?

There are perhaps three key ingredients to what AB achieved. The first was having a clear goal.  It is well known that AB’s obsession was winning the Ashes. Of all cricket’s conquests, this is the one that meant most to him.  Wining the one-day World Cup in 1987 was nice (and unexpected), but it was a step on the way to the prize that really mattered.  Once he won 4-0 in the six test series in 1989, he did not lose a test against England until he retired. For political parties the goals are clear – election victory.

The second key ingredient was focus.  Everyone in the team knew what was required. Everything else was a distraction. Knowing why you are there and what needs to be achieved provides clear direction for decisions. Players were dropped, and plans were hatched. Everyone knew why. For the Governments its about a clear legislative program and societal outcomes. Ministers who perform stay, those who don’t, don’t.

The third ingredient was discipline.  During the 1989 Ashes tour AB gained the title ‘Captain Grumpy’.  He decided that the team had to shun their English opponents and be totally dedicated to their defeat.  He even put his own close relationship with Ian Botham to one side. No idle chatter, no coming together after games with the opposition, and the level of aggression on the field set the standard for the sledging we see today.  Most would agree that the last 12 months has not been the most disciplined performance of the parliamentary Labor party.  John Howard was a  leader that understood discipline and the results followed.

Once the dust settles after Monday’s leadership battle, the focus will need to be on how to dig the Federal Labor party out of its deep hole.  It’s hard to argue that it will be at a low point and will be in need of organisational renewal and turnaround, a situation not unlike that faced by AB.

The big question is how to move forward. Despite both leaders assurances that they’ll encourage the party to unite around the chosen leader, the destructive comments about both leadership contenders over the last week will make it very difficult for whoever wins Monday’s vote to achieve the turnaround that is needed. Like Australian cricket witnessed in the 1980s, perhaps Monday will bring a tearful end to leadership ambitions and then at some stage perhaps a ‘reluctant captain’ will emerge. Although in politics, there are probably few leaders who are truly reluctant.

Chris Styles is the Deputy Dean and Director of the Australian Graduate School of Management.