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26 February 2020

If you want to be different and better, you have to bear the risk of being different and worse

Statistical analysis can’t measure courage or tell you which individual has the capacity to lead.

By Jason Cowley

I was at Sandhurst recently for a seminar on sport and leadership organised by Ed Smith, England national cricket selector, writer and New Statesman contributing writer. Smith is the co-founder of the Institute of Sports Humanities, which, in partnership with the University of Buckingham, has created an MA in leadership in sport, and the Sandhurst event was part of the syllabus. 

The Royal Military Academy was an ideal setting for an event that explored how leadership can be passed on through traditions and institutions as well as by individuals. The line-up of speakers was engaging: Smith himself; Brigadier Bill Wright, former commander of Sandhurst; Andrew Strauss, the former Ashes-winning captain; and Nathan Leamon, who crunches data for the England cricket team and is a recent first-time novelist. 

The conversation was wide-ranging and highly literate. There were notable references to Machiavelli, the books of Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Undoing Project), Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Stephen Bungay, and Carl von Clausewitz. 

Smith set up the institute because he was interested in how leaders can make better decisions. What biases prevent us from making decisions in the most rational way? How in sport, but also in business, do we balance intuition with data analysis? How do we accommodate talented but disruptive mavericks? Can good judgement be taught? How do we identify future leaders? How do we unite small groups in common purpose? 

In sports we may be at the limit of what can be achieved through the application of science and data analysis: how much faster can, say, a human run without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs and illegal doping? The theory of marginal gains – small incremental improvements in any process that can lead to improved collective outcomes – was popularised by Dave Brailsford when he was the storied performance director of British Cycling. It is now standard practice. “But human elements are a very long way from being optimised,” Smith has said. “Human beings are getting slower at getting faster and all those easy wins have pretty much been done. Elite sports teams are always looking for an edge and it’s getting harder and harder to find that edge.” 

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We are all now wearingly familiar with the jargon and clichés of contemporary business discourse: creative disruption, innovation, hustling, start-ups, and so on. You might call it the takeover of the world by Silicon Valley tech utopianism. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s special adviser in Downing Street and a champion of “cognitive diversity”, is addicted to this way of thinking: he hates establishment groupthink and conventional wisdom, and professes a desire to destroy so that he may create something vital and new. 

But radical individualism and the desire to destroy is of little use in the long-term, especially in the military, where selfless commitment is essential and groups of men and women have to be motivated and led. “We’re deluding ourselves if we think that one person has all the answers,” wrote James Mattis, the so-called warrior monk who served for four decades in the US marines. “In a democracy, real leadership is slow, quiet, diplomatic, collegial and often frustrating.” No surprise, then, that he resigned as Donald Trump’s secretary of defence. 

In sports, data analysis can precisely measure performance – stamina, fitness, speed, strength. As Michael Lewis wrote in Moneyball, “The power of statistical analysis depends on sample size: the larger the pile of data the analyst has to work with, the more confidently he can draw specific conclusions about it.”

But statistical analysis can’t measure courage or tell you which individual has the capacity to lead. “Evidence-based data can only tell you part of the story,” as Andrew Strauss said at Sandhurst. 

The life experiences of top sportsmen in this ultra-professional era is extraordinarily narrow. Strauss complained that in English cricket “we are detraining leadership skills”. The system and the relentless schedule stifles and suffocates. Young, gifted cricketers are fast-tracked into the national teams without ever having had an opportunity to learn the art of leadership. 

As a selector, Smith has been praised for his boldness and left-field thinking (the title of his former NS column). After one Test defeat in the Caribbean in 2019, Ashley Giles, managing director of English men’s cricket, complained about “funky selections”, possibly a sly dig at Smith and his fellow selector, James Taylor. 

Smith has since been vindicated. Before the second Test in Cape Town in January, England were in disarray. They had lost the previous match near Pretoria, key players were injured and the squad had been ravaged by illness. England’s response was to play five inexperienced players aged 24 or younger, who brought renewed enthusiasm and exuberance. England won the match and then dominated the rest of the series. 

I spoke to Smith about the turnaround and he had a simple message: tough times present great opportunity. “Decision-makers often shy away from risk when the odds are against them because they know that decisions are usually judged externally by results,” he told me. “So, when the odds are moderate/poor, they tend to play it safe in terms of decisions – exactly the wrong strategy. Perhaps subliminally, they try to prepare for the prospect of losing by losing conventionally.” 

He is fond of an adage from Howard Marks, an American investor and writer: “If you want to be different and better, you have to bear the risk of being different and worse.” In the end, it’s always about judgement, in sport, the military or, most pressingly, in one’s own life. 

This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy