How a psychoanalyst became England’s most successful cricket captain – Mike Brearley

Leadership lessons from Mike Brearley
Do you belong to the school of thought that the captain or leader of the team must be extraordinarily gifted? That he or she needs to be better than individuals within the team to inspire respect? Do you also believe that leadership is not a specialization in itself?

The story of Mike Brearley, one of the most successful cricket captains of all times will pleasantly surprise you.

“Some of the great players haven’t been great captains because they have not been able to understand the struggle. You have to have an empathy for other players
” – Mike Brearley 

This is the story of how a cricket player with ordinary individual ability became one of the most successful captains of all times. Ordinary because his Test match batting average in 39 matches is 22.88 and he never scored a Test century. In fact, Mike Brearley is one of the rare cricketers who earned a place in the team as a specialist “captain” and not as a batsman or bowler. 

His record as a captain is unrivalled – he captained the international English side in 31 of his 39 Test matches, winning 17 and losing only 4. Compare this with the records of scores of players who were individually brilliant but mediocre as captains and Mike Brearley’s outstanding ability as a leader comes to the fore.

What is the secret behind his success as a captain? How did he lead his team to extraordinary feats? How did he motivate his team and build a winning mindset?

There are important lessons here for a leader in any walk of life and all of us who work with other people.

Let’s take a deeper look at his career.

The full name of Mike Brearley is John Michael Brearley, OBE, often fondly called as ‘Mike Brearley’. Born on 28th April 1942, he is a retired English first class cricketer who captained Cambridge University, Middlesex and England. 
Brearley was educated at the City of London School. While at St. John’s college, Cambridge, Brearley excelled at cricket as a wicket keeper. 
After making 76 on first class debut as a wicket keeper, he played for Cambridge University between 1961 and 1968, captaining the side from 1964 onwards, first as an undergraduate in the classical and moral science tripos and then as a postgraduate. 

As he was pursuing his academic career as a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, his cricketing activity was limited in 1969 and 1970. He was not selected for England until the age of 34 in 1976.

But he was an outstanding captain. His excellent man management skills drew the very best from the players in his team. He was once described by Rodney Hogg as having “a degree in people”. 
In 1985, Brearley published his book ‘The Art of Captaincy’ which is often referred as an essential classic on captaincy, with important lessons for leaders in all walks of life.

What are his essential lessons of leadership? 
Here are the most important lessons that are applicable in business as well as for anyone dealing with other people whether leading a team or raising a family:
Tactical understanding of the situation
Sound knowledge of the game, including its technical aspects is required. As the situation of the game on the ground evolves, tactics change and the leader has to respond to the changing situation dynamically. This requires both an intuitive understanding of the situation as well as having pleasure and interest in tactics. Enjoying the changing situation enables the leader to deal with it effectively than becoming stressed. 

In responding to situations, great leaders are both inventive and cautious, moving between attack and defense. 

Man-management – the ability to ‘read’ people

Brearley’s outstanding ability was to get the whole group playing as a team. He had the ability to get the best out of individuals. He often got warring factions and rockstar players with outstanding individuals ability to play as one team. He motivated and got the best out of talented players like Geoff Boycott and Ian Botham.

Blueprint for creating a winning mindset 
This is perhaps the greatest contribution of Brearley towards leadership. In his book, he has covered in depth about what goes through the mind of an underachieving player. He explores what makes a player tick. In particular defeatism, lack of initiative and complacency arise resulting in lower performance. The underlying cause identified by him is deep-rooted anxiety. 

Addressing anxiety is a key role of the leader
Anxiety has its roots in childhood. It needs reassurance – in some ways reminiscent of how anxiety is repeatedly addressed during childhood years by the first nurse, mother and thereafter by parents and caretaker. Anxiety can result in lack of confidence, self-doubts and an attitude of defeatism. Uncovering such tendencies and addressing them in a healthy manner results in building confidence and a winning mindset.

Building a winning mindset is the most critical role Mike Brearley played as a captain and he understood the underlying levers better than most others.
Developing empathy to achieve shared goals
As a key to working towards a common goal, empathy is a powerful enabler. Empathy is deeply experiencing how other person is feeling. In a team situation there are many times when one player sYs – “I did my part” – even when the team as a whole loses. Empathy is the bridge and glue that holds the team together by deeply shared experiences. True empathy is he opposite of a blaming culture.

Intuitive understanding of people
Empathy enables an intuitive understanding of others. Intuition helps to build a close bond between the leader and the team member. Team member has a strong emotional investment when he or she feels “deeply and effortlessly understood” at an intuitive level.

In sport, as in other areas of life, a resourceful leader is always coming up with alternate solutions, creative ways. His deep understanding of the talents and strengths of individuals gave Mike Brearley the ability to use his players in a creative way. This outwitted and surprised his opponents and increased the confidence levels of his players.


Brearley understood that a lack of clarity in a leader’s mind leads to confusion within the ranks. He was clear about the goal and brought decisiveness and transparency to his decisions. People are automatically drawn to a decisive leader who shows the way and is clear about what needs to be done and why than a leader who doesn’t speak his or her mind, is unclear about what needs to be done and appears clueless and confused.

Brearley also advocated a distance to be maintained between the captain and his troops – considering it as a key element of objectivity and respect.
Career highlights 
Brearley was captain during the infamous aluminium bat incident in 1979, when he objected to Dennis Lillees’ use of the bat, instead of one made of willow.
He had been an innovator regarding cricket equipment himself, wearing a ‘skull cap under his England cap in 1977. It was later popularised by the Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar. 
Brearley also captained England to the final of the 1979 cricket world cup, scoring 53 in the semi final against new Zealand and 64 in the final against the West indies.
Having passed the England captaincy to Ian Botham in 1980, Brearley returned as captain following Bothams’ resignation for the third test against Australia at Headingley in 1981, going on to win the match and two of the remaining three matches of the series to the Ashes 3-1.
Since his retirement from professional cricket he has pursued a career as a writer and psychoanalyst serving as president of the British psychoanalytical society 2008-2010. 
He is now a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist (registered with the BPC), motivational speaker and part time cricket journalist for The Times in London.

He was appointed an OBE in 1978.
In 1998 he became an Honorary fellow of his alma mater, Cambridge College, St. John’s. 
In 2006 he was awarded an honorary Doctorate by Oxford Brookes university. 
Brearley succeeded Doug Insole as president of MCC on 1st October 2007.

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Sharad Verma is currently HR Head (CHRO) for Sears Holdings India.

Sharad’s blog on leadership, talent and innovation is available at Sharad has been named one of the Top 20 Social Media HR Influencers by SHRM, featured as one of the Best HR Heads in India and his column featured in the top 5 most read career advice on Star career website.

A graduate of the prestigious XLRI, Sharad has more than two decades of HR experience. He has previously been Global Head – Human Resources for Polaris Consulting & Services Ltd, Director, Human Resources for SunGard Global Technology, Head of Human Resources for Berkadia (subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway),, and The Bank of New York Mellon India.

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