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Black Caps offer masterclass in leadership despite loss

By Alex Penk July 23, 2019

Big moments reveal who we really are, and they don’t come much bigger than a World Cup final, especially when you’ve lost in controversial circumstances. Fresh off the agony of losing, Black Caps captain Kane Williamson could have been angry, or bitter, or frustrated. But instead he was gracious, and humble. So humble, in fact, that apparently when he was told he had won the Player of the Tournament award, his immediate reaction was, “Me?” There’s a lesson in this for all of New Zealand’s leaders.

We feel such failures deeply, because we know that leaders have a disproportionate impact on others’ lives

We celebrate leaders and leadership, but it’s not hard to find examples of leadership failure, even at the highest levels. For example, consider the recent report finding that, “bullying and harassment are systemic” in Parliament. Although “the vast majority” of MPs are good leaders, “a well-known minority of them, across most political parties, were reported as engaging in inappropriate behaviours on a regular basis.” We feel such failures deeply, because we know that leaders have a disproportionate impact on others’ lives, especially when they wield the influence and authority of elected office.

So when we see great leadership in action, as we did after the Cricket World Cup final, we should celebrate it and learn from it. To understand the roots of this approach, we only need to go back to New Zealand’s last captain beaten in a World Cup final, Brendon McCullum. A year after losing the 2015 final, McCullum was invited to deliver the annual Spirit of Cricket Lecture. In it, he reflected on his transition from a player who “was proud to be called brash, aggressive and perhaps even arrogant,” one “who didn’t really care what it took to win,” to one who wanted to lead “a team that people could be proud of,” a team that based itself on the Kiwi traits of being “humble and hard-working.”

The Black Caps have shown us how, and in the process they’ve given us something even more precious than a trophy

This is the kind of leadership that’s willing to sacrifice short-term results for a higher good, and that embodies what author David Brooks calls the “eulogy virtues.” These are “the virtues that get talked about at your funeral … whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful.” They’re different to what he calls the “resume virtues,” the statements of worldly success and striving that we put on our CVs but which, he says, are not what define who we truly are.

Similarly, McCullum became the kind of leader that could be asked to give a Spirit of Cricket lecture by reflecting on how the public perceived his team, and on how he would feel about his time playing the game when he looked back. Imagine if more of New Zealand’s public leaders consciously followed his example, and Williamson’s. Imagine if the agony of losing the World Cup final could be transformed and redeemed in this way, to revitalise our culture of leadership. The Black Caps have shown us how, and in the process they’ve given us something even more precious than a trophy. Now it’s up to the rest of our leaders to follow their example.

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