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Gary Kirsten’s Tips On Leading A Successful Life

As a Protea cricket player, Gary Kirsten loved the game. As an international coach, he discovered that leadership is about more than motivating a team to win. It’s about leading a successful life, which starts with understanding and working towards a greater good.

Nadine Todd

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Harry Truman said that it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit. This has always resonated with me. It’s the essence of teamwork, and what you can accomplish when you work together.

Becoming India’s coach in 2008 pretty much fell into my lap

I had long ago decided that leadership wasn’t for me. Even as a Protea I just wanted to play, and had even resigned my vice-captaincy. After I retired I set up a cricket academy. And then I received an email from Sunil Gavaskar, asking if I’d consider coaching the Indian cricket team. I thought it was a hoax and ignored it. And then a second email arrived. They were actually interested in chatting to me, even though I had exactly zero hours of coaching experience.

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The Indian cricket team had some of the best players in the world, and yet they didn’t function as a cohesive unit. This played a part in why they were not doing as well on the international stage as they should have.

With the help of Paddy Upton, it took us two series (which we lost) to realise that our role wasn’t to tell them how to play better — they were excellent players. It was to help them to become a team. We had one more series (against Australia) to prove ourselves, or we’d be out.

I started by asking the whole team to write down on a piece of paper one commitment to the team over the course of the series. What will your commitment be from tomorrow for this team? It was a turning point for us.

It was when each player stopped functioning as an individual, and started working towards a greater good. The fact that it was a commitment that needed to be honoured just made it even stronger. I wasn’t telling them what to do. They were choosing what their best contribution to the team could be. They were taking ownership over the team’s success.

It was a lesson that shaped the kind of leader I wanted to be: I needed to open my ears and shut my mouth. I needed to listen to my team, understand who they were as people, and then assist them. We played some outstanding test cricket over the next 24 months, losing just one match. After the 2011 World Cup, my contract came to an end.

Just before returning to South Africa, Sachen Tendulkar’s wife thanked me for some of the happiest times in his career. He had told me at the beginning that what he was looking for in a coach was a friend, and that was what I had become. Knowing that I’d made a personal difference to many of the Indian players meant more than winning a world cup to me.

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Leadership is a journey, and not a goal

I believe you need to create an environment where people have the times of their lives, and achieve great things because of it. To do that, you need to have a set of values and non-negotiables that you live by, and that you instil in your team.

This is more important than a result. As a player I was willing to bend the rules. As a leader I realised that how we operate and what we are about is more important than just winning. A successful life is less about what you do, and more about who you are.

Helping others to become the best they can be is a privilege and a responsibility. Focus on commitment: What is yours? What is each member of your team’s? It takes courage to make the right commitments and then follow through. To help people do this is the greatest call of a leader.

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