A Short Case Study in Leadership Excellence: England Men’s Cricket Team

Just over six months ago I was moved to write the article Forgive me, but the Ashes are Rooted, a lament from an Australian cricket fan about the extent to which the English men’s opposition had fallen under the leadership of former Managing Director Ashley Giles, head coach Chris Silverwood, and captain Joe Root. Australia easily won the Ashes in 2021/22 and it was barely a contest.

Turning the clock forward to the present day, the English team are riding high. So high in fact, they have convincingly defeated both finalists from the 2021 World Test Championship in the space of a few weeks, while recording the second-highest run chase to win a test in the history of the game. And this has been achieved with largely the same squad that capitulated in Australia.

So how has this unbelievable turnaround occurred? In three words – refreshed, aligned leadership. Here are the leadership ingredients I believe England has got right so far.

A winning vision from the top. The renaissance of the team can be traced back to the appointment of Rob Key as Managing Director of men’s cricket in April. A former England test cricketer with a modest record at the highest level, Key had spent the previous ten years as a cricket commentator and writer. In a recent interview on The Tuffers and Vaughan Cricket Show, Key revealed he sees his role as “a manager of people, not a coach, and to hire the best people”. He took this role on because he was growing frustrated that he “couldn’t make a difference” as a broadcaster, and is revelling in the “good type of stress” the role presents.

Tellingly, he reveals that for him the golden age of England test cricket was under Michael Vaughan’s leadership in 2005, with “aggressive mentality” as the hallmark. In simple terms, the team believed it could win from any position, and in doing so claimed the Ashes for the first time since 1987.

“In simple terms, the team believed it could win from any position, and in doing so claimed the Ashes for the first time since 1987”

A fully aligned senior leadership group. Key’s first tasks were to appoint a new captain and coach. For captain, given the threadbare performances many of the players had, Ben Stokes was the only realistic candidate. Stokes is a hugely talented cricketer with an aggressive streak, who missed the 2017/18 Ashes after being charged with affray. While an obvious choice, it was not without its risks.

Recently appointed England captain Ben Stokes. Source: Sky Sports 

For the role of coach, a much larger field emerged. Key explained that he chose Brendon McCullum, seen by many as a “left field” choice due to his relative lack of prior coaching experience, because his philosophies about the way the game should be played matched his. Soak up pressure, attack at the right time, always think positively, remove indecision from your mind. He impressed Key with his conviction, intelligence, and transparency. Key felt he “might have the next great coach” on his hands after meeting him. Another example of measured risk, and a leader backing their instincts.

“Key felt he ‘might have the next great coach’ on his hands after meeting him”

Utilise the skills present in your team, and be clear on the role you want them to play. While England’s test side has struggled in recent years, its white-ball team has been extremely successful, winning the 50-over World Cup in 2019 and reaching the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup in 2021. Several of the players in these successful teams also featured in the test side. Therefore, it is clear that talented players were available, but not getting the same results. This is where McCullum and Stokes are working together to get the best from their players, removing doubts from their minds, settling on a line-up and providing clear guidance on the role they are to play.

Revived England batsman Jonny Bairstow. Source: Getty Images

Batsman Jonny Bairstow has settled at no 5 in the batting order and is adopting the same hard-hitting style he has successfully achieved in white-ball matches. He has scored more runs in the past 25 days than Indian star Virat Kohli has in the past 18 months. Spinner Jack Leach is growing in confidence, knowing his captain is backing him at the selection table, and was recently rewarded with his first 10-wicket haul. His body language has completely transformed from the Ashes series, where he often appeared lost. And Joe Root, maligned as captain but never doubted as a batsman, has revelled in the freedom of playing purely as a batsman, and will likely go on to become England’s all-time leading run-scorer. In partnership in Birmingham against India last week, he and Bairstow added an unbroken 269 runs, and didn’t look like getting out.

There are probably other factors behind England’s resurgence, and we are only four tests into the reign of this leadership group. McCullum has said openly the approach England are taking will not always prove successful. But already, the 2023 Ashes series in England is looming as the most anticipated in years. Not only is this tremendous for the sport, it reinforces my view that great leadership need not be a complicated art – with a clear vision, an aligned leadership group, and the belief that comes from positive reinforcement and stability, your team can achieve the previously unthinkable.


Cadence Leadership Advisory is a leadership development business specialising in coaching people, team leadership and development, strategy review and organisational culture.

Its Founder, Lewis Williams, has over 25 years of leadership experience gained through senior roles at NAB, HSBC and Bendigo and Adelaide Bank. A Graduate of AGSM@UNSW, a Graduate Member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), and an Approved Advisor with Advisory Board Centre, he instigated and drove development of the 2021 paper “Organisational Culture: Beyond the Intangible” with other alumni of the AICD. He is also an accredited CultureTalk practitioner, a training and development platform that activates the framework of personality archetypes for the growth of leaders, teams, brands and cultures.

FOUNDER: Lewis Williams

EMAIL: lewis@cadenceleadershipadvisory.com.au

MOBILE: 61 (0) 477 371 665

LINKEDIN: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lewis-williams- cadenceleadershipadvisory/

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