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Kevin Pietersen – unmanageable maverick or a wasted talent?

Following weeks of media speculation after a disastrous Ashes Tour in Australia, it has been revealed that Kevin Pietersen’s England career is over as he will no longer be selected by the ECB. Article by Adrian Moorhouse, Olympic Gold Medal winning swimmer in Seoul 1988 and Founder of Lane4.

While the news may not come as a shock to England fans, they will certainly be saddened by it and many have been left confused as to the real reason for his dismissal. So what are the underlying issues surrounding this decision and was Pietersen ultimately the architect of his own downfall? Pietersen is arguably the most talented English player of the modern era. Simply by looking at his statistics it’s clear to see that he was on the way to smashing the record book and becoming an England legend. However, look past the statistics and some would say you’d find an enigmatic talent, unwilling to adapt his game or listen to authority. There has often been criticism of his dismissals and claims that he gives his wicket away far too cheaply due to his playing style. During the recent Ashes tour, Geoffrey Boycott said  ‘He is going to do whatever he wants, play the way he feels, irrespective of the state of the match or what is best for England’. There seems to be an inability, or perhaps unwillingness, from Pietersen to change the way that he plays. Could this signal the lack of a learning mindset?

We believe that ability alone is not enough for people to reach their full potential. High performers need to adopt a learning mindset so that they are always striving to improve themselves by changing the way that they work, learning new skills and techniques. In this case, Pietersen’s playing style has arguably remained the same since he first entered the team, often playing extravagant high risk shots regardless of the state of the game and the needs of the team. As his prominence in the team has grown, and the teams’ reliance on his runs has increased, it could be argued that he should have changed his approach to benefit the team more. It’s likely that everyone knows someone in their organisation who has progressed into a senior position doing things ‘their way’ and comes with an attitude of ‘if it’s worked for me in the past, why should I have to change it?’.

Another factor that could have contributed to his dismissal is the fact that, as he has progressed and become more prominent in the England team, he has derailed, or hindered his own performance, by over-relying on traits that have served him well in the past. For example, when he first came into the team Pietersen had an air of self-confidence and was innovative in the shots he played, making the ‘switch hit shot’ one of his trademarks. This delivered results when he wasn’t under pressure and was supported by quality batsmen such as Michael Vaughn, Andrew Flintoff and Andrew Strauss. However, as these players have retired or lost form, Pietersen’s status has elevated to someone who is relied upon to deliver the majority of the runs. With this responsibility comes more pressure, especially when the team is underperforming, and has possibly led to his original strengths manifesting themselves as weaknesses. You could argue that his confidence has now become arrogance, with Pietersen believing that he is right to continue doing things his way and not listening to his coaches or team mates’ advice. Furthermore, his innovation has now seemingly become exhibitionism, trying difficult shots for the sake of hitting them, often resulting in him getting out when his team needs him the most.

Over-reliance on previous strengths is common in leaders who transition to new levels, whether in business or sport. As they come under increasing pressure they will often revert back to familiar habits that are no longer of value. This can cause leaders to derail and leave them unable to fulfil the responsibilities that a demanding new role brings. So how do you deal with someone who hasn’t developed a learning mindset or seems to be derailing in a new role? In the case of the England team it appears that the solution has been to remove the individual from the team and carry on without them. But is this really effective management? You could suggest that what Pietersen really needed was for a coach to sit down with him and re-contract with him, where they could discuss the expectations they had of each other and the expectations and responsibilities that he had within the team. If reports are to be believed, the coaching set-up under Andrew Flowers’ leadership had become heavily focused on data and statistics, getting in the way of players being able to make intuitive, emotional ‘in the moment’ decisions – of which Pietersen’s game relies on. This style of management won’t have suited him and it’s unsurprising there were rumours of dressing room bust-ups.

Perhaps the England management team should have been asking themselves questions such as: how do you keep someone world class while fitting in with the team ethos? How many ‘maverick’ players like this can you have in a team? Should the leaders and coaches adapt their approach to fit around these key members of the team? These are questions that can be posed in business as well as sport and are key to making sure that you are managing your talent well. This case clearly reminds us that everyone needs a different style of management – and that there can’t be a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is vital for leaders in business to pay close attention to both the strengths and weakness of the people they lead if they are to get the best out of them. Ultimately, it appears that blame can be apportioned to both Pietersen and the England Cricket hierarchy in this situation. Some will say it is down to mismanagement. Others will argue that no one player is bigger than the team and he should have tried harder to pull in the same direction as everyone else. What is certain is that such issues can affect anyone, whether in sport or business, and can lead to an irreparable breakdown in the relationship if not addressed.

Adrian Moorhouse is a former GB Olympic swimmer and won a Gold Medal at the Seoul Games in 1988. He has since gone on to found Lane4, a leader in the field of human performance who work with individuals and teams to build sustainable competitive advantage.

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