An Epic Turnaround of a Sports Team Epitomizes the Power of Psychological Safety

The sport is cricket, the team is the British National Team. Let me start by saying that I am not a cricket fan, but a close friend of mine is. This friend is also a successful businessman. Over the years we have shared opinions about what makes great leadership. He believes in more of a Jack Welch style of leader: strong, decisive, authoritarian. I am more of a Bill George fan: collaborative, authentic, empowering of others.

Recently, he alerted me to an example from the cricket world that is profound. This is the story of unprecedented success at the hands of a leadership change. It is such an extreme turnaround that it has my friend now appreciating the “soft side” of leadership.

With largely the same team, just new leaders in place, the English National Cricket Team went from 1 win and 16 losses prior to April of 2022, to going 13-5-1 in their next 19 matches. How in the world were they able to make this radical transformation?

First, a little background on the game of cricket.

Cricket is grueling and take place over 5 days. Each day, through varying weather conditions, cricket is played for more than 6 hours. Usually 4-5 different Bowlers (pitchers) are used and hundreds of runs are scored. Probably more than any other sport, “test matches” as they are called, elevate the superior team. A lucky hit or a bad error does not typically determine the outcome.

Leadership Comes from an Unlikely Place

Prior to the Spring of 2022, the English team had lost 16 of their last 17 matches. In a sport that England invented, they had become the laughingstock of the world. So, in April of 2022, they named Rob Key as their new Managing Director.

Key had been a great cricket player who had moved into the telecast booth. As losing became commonplace, Key felt helpless. As he called the matches, he became increasingly frustrated, wanting to do something to turn the team around. This eventually led him to take on the role of Managing Director.

The first thing Key did was to make a controversial hiring of a new coach. Brendon (Baz) McCullum was his choice. This was a controversial decision as Baz was a rival New Zealander and fans were initially skeptical. Next, McCullum named Ben Stokes as their new team captain. Stokes was a free and outspoken spirit with a reputation as a rule-breaker. He was replacing one of the greatest players of all time players in current captain Joe Root. Fortunately, Root received this well wanting to leave captain responsibilities to focus on his own game.

Enter The Philosophy of Fearlessness

With the new leaders came a new philosophy. The team was to play fearlessly with McCullum identifying the removal of fear of failure as a key message. They were to go out and have fun. They were to be bold, take risks and be aggressive. The leaders also committed that players would not lose their place on the team if they made a mistake. Leaders said, “You will not be dropped if you fail on the field, go out and play your best cricket.”

Road to The Ashes: Relive Ben Stokes' wonder knock at Headingley in 2019 | Cricket - Hindustan Times

From the start, Stokes led from the front. He led from example with courageous and joyful play. He became the example of what he and McCullum were asking the entire team to do. One story exemplifies this approach.

200 runs in an inning is a huge accomplishment. Maybe 5% of all players accomplish this at one time in their career, so it is rare. On one occasion, one of the British players had scored 192 in an inning. Close to this milestone, the common behavior would be to get conservative and not make a mistake as the threshold was approached. Instead, he did something quite rare. He not only stayed aggressive, he swung hard trying to drive the ball out of the stadium. And, he flew out, ending his chance to meet the 200 run threshold. Asked why he did such a foolish thing when the milestone was so close, he responded that he did it because that’s how we play the game and have fun.

Thus, in early 2022, a new era of British cricket began. The team was the same in personnel, but different in attitude. They were now kids playing a game with reckless abandon. Their joy was unleashed and their fear dissolved away.

This may sound good, but would it change when adversity struck? Isn’t true character determined when adversity strikes? Anyone who has worked in a company with a stated dedication to employees that then lays people off when a downturn hits, knows that values are demonstrate more in tough times than in good. So how would McCallum and Stoke act when their team gets behind? They stayed the course. Their aggressiveness did not wane when they were losing. The team remained free-spirited and aggressive, and no player was demoted for aggressive play. They remained focused on the joy of the sport.

From Worst to First

As this new philosophy was embraced, not only did they start to win, they started to break scoring records. With success came increased trust in each other. As team leaders played fearlessly so did the role players. The most vulnerable of players now tried new things and improved their play empowered by the newfound courage. Everyone adopted this joy-filled style. Since the leadership change, the team has gone 13-5-1. Overnight they went from a winning percentage of 6% to 72%. With statements like, “we are going to enjoy our cricket win or lose,” they have again become the best team in the world.

This is the power of psychological safety. When people can feel free to share their gifts fearlessly, you get the best they have to offer. This intuitively makes sense. We can relate to the benefits when teammates are free to challenge and debate to find the best answer. But I don’t think we pay enough attention to how psychological safety eliminates distractions. Without the ability to challenge and express, we tend to share opposing positions with others. We gripe about decisions in private. We don’t fully buy in. Distractions are created and multiplied by a accumulating frustration. And potential is unfulfilled. These are the distractions that sap energy and breed distrust. When psychological safety is present, then the energy of dissention is redirected toward the goal.

Psychological safety both maximizes contributions and minimizes distractions. It works as we have learned from the example of British cricket. For more information on how to grow psychological safety on your team, please visit