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The Pietersen Saga: How Do You Keep A Star Employee In Check?

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Kevin Pietersen's omission from England's squad for the World Twenty20 tournament is his latest punishment for sending allegedly disloyal texts about his own side to South African opponents. But is another charismatic and controversial cricketer, Australian Shane Warne, right to tell the BBC: "It shouldn't have got to this...There are faults on both sides"? http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/cricket/19324501

The Pietersen saga illustrates one of the key dilemmas of management and leadership. Star players (whether in sport or business) are often 'difficult' individuals - egotistical, conceited and selfish, yet sometimes, insecure and needy. How is it best to deal with them when they step out of line?

Mike Brearley, the England cricket captain who became a psychotherapist, and whose book The Art of Captaincy is a classic text on leadership, has written thoughtfully about the Pietersen issue in The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2012/aug/18/kevin-pietersen-became-own-worst-enemy. He is surely right to infer that the latest row arises after mounting frustration and for provocation, but as he says, impasses of this kind always reflect on leaders, whose task is to get the best out of their stars. Yet what if, as perhaps here, the star is "hell-bent on destructiveness"?

Part of the answer lies in trying to reduce the risk of a stand-off, and this means making a concerted attempt to understand what makes the star player tick. Leaders need to recognise that even a seemingly brash and vain individual may need to have his (or her) confidence shored up - not just once in a blue moon, but often on a continuing basis.

This means more than making sure that the value of the star's contribution to the teams, or organisations, successes is recognised. It is about trying to identify what will be most effective in persuading the star to prioritise the good of the team at all times, over and above hitting personal targets. Often the secret is for the star to see making a vital contribution to the team's success, through helping to enhance its cohesive qualities and collective results, as a key benchmark of personal achievement.

A delicate balance needs to be struck. If other members of the team believe that the star is being indulged unfairly, morale may collapse. Before long, results are likely to deteriorate, even if the star continues to out-perform colleagues. So the effective leader will know when to draw the line - but also strive not to turn the line into a permanent barrier to a rapprochement, unless there is, genuinely no alternative.

When Carlos Tevez refused to play for Manchester City last year, the first reaction of manager Roberto Mancini was to say that Tevez was finished with the club. It seemed there was no way back. But Tevez failed to find another club to take him, and that stroke of luck - and the passage of time - helped the club, manager, and fellow players to accept him back in the team after he apologised for his behaviour. And they were rewarded by the part he played in their winning the FA Premier League.

Perhaps a similar combination of circumstances - making use of the breathing space afforded by dropping Pietersen, and putting the onus on him to regain the trust and confidence of his captain and colleagues - will lead to this gifted batsman regaining his England place. Much will depend on whether England captain Andrew Strauss (and the ECB) see Pieterson as having betrayed him and the team to such an extent that the rift is irreparable.

All the evidence suggests that Strauss is a sufficiently wise and fair-minded leader to be forgiving, if he can be persuaded that it is safe to trust Pietersen again. The real question is whether any assurances that Pieterson can give will be credible. Sometimes, despite the great value of their potential personal contribution, certain star players are more trouble than they are worth.