MS Dhoni and the code of ‘letting go’

Raja Murthy January 7, 2017 11:28 AM (UTC+8)
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Mahendra Singh Dhoni abruptly quitting as India’s cricket captain near midnight of November 4, may have surprised millions of his fans worldwide, but he further polished a legacy of lessons from life’s playing fields: how to never give up, but more importantly, when to let go – before the world bluntly says “get out.”

Treating both success and failure with equanimity, an iron-willed determination to reach the target – many aspects of Dhoni’s inspiring leadership career are out of the universal code book to rare success, and so this Asia Times story reaches the non-cricketing world too.

‘Country first, family next’ became Dhoni’s life’s priorities – the choice of those seeing the bigger picture, the greater good, the reality that what benefits the universal family will benefit the biological family too.

MS Dhoni, one of the world’s great sporting leaders, stepping down ended the remarkable reign of ‘Captain Cool’. The unusual Dhoni Era in its twilight continues with him as team player.

Cricket is second most followed sport globally (2.5 billion on the Internet), after soccer – but few outside the cricket cosmos might know of Dhoni, except maybe in lists of world’s highest paid athletes (he earns approx US$ 31 million annually, says Forbes). Here again, Dhoni became a bridge: soccer was initially his first love in school, and he co-owns a football club (Chennaiyin FC) in the Indian Super League. Fittingly, Manchester United, one of the world’s great football clubs, offered their tribute:

For some, everyone’s happiness becomes one’s own happiness – and symbolically Dhoni handed over trophies of triumph to teammates, and melted into the margins of jubilation. We saw that first after winning the Twenty20 World Cup in Johannesburg of 2007; we saw it again after he played the innings of his life (see four-minute video), and ensured India won the 2011 World Cup in an unforgettable Mumbai night of an Indian summer. A small town boy touched the sky:

‘M.S.Dhoni, the Untold Story’, the Bollywood biopic of Dhoni, became a blockbuster of 2016. Starring Sushant Rajput in the title role, it narrates Dhoni’s life from humble origins as a small town boy from Ranchi, eastern India, to World Cup winning captain.

I was in Rishikesh when captain Dhoni launched that epochal shot of victory into the erupting Wankhede stands in Mumbai. April 2 then became another reminder of a team sport dominating a nation’s psyche – like Brazil plunging into despair after their 1-7 loss to Germany in the 2014 FIFA soccer World Cup semi-final, in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte (meaning ‘Beautiful Horizon’). Likewise at the Himalayan doorway to world of the supra-mundane, when Rishikesh (meaning ‘Abode of Sages’) celebrated after India’s second World Cup win after 27 years.

In the mundane world, I have rarely seen anyone more committed to putting team before self as does Dhoni. So in the new year of 2017, he saw the next generation ready, let go personal pride, quit as skipper, and offered to play under the next captain. Dissolving the ego is never easy. But then truly successful people climb rare heights because they carry less weight –  a life less burdened without a Big Ego.

Sports serve as a competitive microcosm of life, and which is why a busy world from prime ministers to professionals follow it – the inspiration of achievement giving value for time invested, a money’s worth beyond the adrenaline-powered entertainment.

Dhoni and the Art of Leadership

Individual character gets exposed in personality tests of the playing fields, and so business chieftains – as did US President-elect Donald Trump – invite to the golf course a colleague they wish to assess.

“I don’t plan a lot and believe in my gut feeling ….from past experiences, situations I have faced. It’s not something momentary without logic. It is an educated chance taken based on past knowledge, and I really believe in that feeling.” – MS Dhoni

That assessment includes measuring equanimity to deal with the bad news. Does the person remain cheerfully optimistic after being buried in the sand trap? Dhoni earned his moniker ‘Captain Cool’ for his extraordinary calm in nail-chewing situations (like winning a knock-out World Cup game on March 23, 2016, when the opposition had two runs to get with three wickets in hand). And Dhoni accomplished it all with the most difficult workload in cricket: as captain-wicket keeper, and the batting finisher during nerve-wracking final overs.

“Man management is slightly more difficult because you are dealing with human emotions which are complicated,” Dhoni said in an insightful rare interview (The Art of Leadership, by MS Dhoni) to the media he liked to avoid. “Most times an individual starts to doubt his talent before the others doubt him. The self belief goes missing… When you’re in a bad mental space, you can take even the right thing in a negative way. So the communication becomes very critical.”

Dhoni’s success in people management and life centered around detachment from the ego ‘I’. Detachment is often misunderstood as indifference, being coldly aloof – but real detachment is less attachment to one’s own ego. No ego, no fear. Nor is there arrogance, the other big enemy. Bigger the ‘I’, bigger the problems.

Code of the Letting Go

Lesser ego enables lesser clinging, craving, addiction to the trappings of power, fame and status – the barriers to letting go. But for Dhoni, life went beyond the winning and losing of fickle fortunes. At the peak of his career he was serving as a honorary Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army, a qualified paratrooper in the elite Para Brigade of the Special Forces. He revealed he lost no sleep over a closely fought game won or lost.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India cricket captain and honorary Lieutenant Colonel, walks with military officers at the Army headquarters in Baramulla, in the northern Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, on June 3, 2012. Dhoni became a qualified paratrooper in 2015.

Exit comfort zones. Enter the unknown. The letting go, like leaping out of a Indian Air Force AN-32 aircraft as Dhoni did to earn his paratrooper wings, needs a leap of experiential faith.

So too letting go the coveted leadership post as India’s cricket captain, to risk $31 million or more. This while the apex Supreme Court was asking politician-cricket bosses to get out. Only the deluded addict to the ego cannot see the futility of a fight he cannot win – and need not win.

Dhoni and a prominent Indian Member of Parliament Anurag Thakur this week became two starkly different sides of the same organizational coin. Thakur (42) was one of promising young leaders in the country. Rome, they said, corrupted all those who aspired to its power. So too it seems politics and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) – among wealthiest sports bodies in the world – of which Anurag Thakur was President until 48 hours ago.

When it’s time to go, the writing is on the wall. Dhoni read it, Anurag Thakur chose to be in denial.

Lt. Colonel Dhoni (35) left the coveted office with dignity and applause, about the same time BCCI boss Anurag Thakur was ordered to get out – a familiar ugly ending to power struggles in the corporate and political world.

Another career option awaits Dhoni: start an ‘Art of The Leadership’ academy, with ‘when to let go’ being core of the curriculum: how to leave the comfort zone before the door shuts, and courageously enter the opening gateway of the greater unknown.

Raja Murthy
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist based in Mumbai contributing to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly for Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.
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