JUSTIN LANGER: Coaching in the IPL reminded me that kicking a bin wasn’t the leader I wanted to be

Justin Langer
The Nightly
6 Min Read
JUSTIN LANGER: Not for the first time in my life, and over the last few months, I regularly asked myself a simple question: ‘Justin, are you a bull---t artist, or are you going to walk the talk?’
JUSTIN LANGER: Not for the first time in my life, and over the last few months, I regularly asked myself a simple question: ‘Justin, are you a bull---t artist, or are you going to walk the talk?’ Credit: Supplied, The Nightly

For such an iconic poem, Dale Winbrow’s most famous work is often mistitled, The Man in the Glass.

It’s actually, The Guy in the Glass, and it was written by the American composer more than 75 years ago in 1938, yet its power of self-reflection is still as forceful as ever.

The first stanza says:

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“When you get all you want and you struggle for self, and the world makes you king for a day, then go to the mirror and look at yourself and see what that man has to say.”

Not for the first time in my life, and over the last few months, I regularly asked myself a simple question: “Justin, are you a bull...t artist, or are you going to walk the talk?”

Obviously, these words didn’t leave my lips, but they roared through my mind on several occasions.

And I’m so glad they did.

When I was mindful enough to recognise stressful moments, this simple question forced me to breathe, think and then make a less emotional decision.

When I was coaching Australia, several of these “moments” were very publicly caught on camera during the Amazon documentary called “The Test.”

For 18 months the Australian cricket team was filmed going about our business — warts and all.

The end product proved so popular that a third series is about to be released on Amazon.

My experience from the first season was that, although the product was excellent, having that day-to-day camera in your face could be exhausting.

But looking back I have realised that as confronting as the exposure could be, it was also personally and professionally educational.

At one point there was a scene when I kicked a rubbish bin in utter frustration during a famous Test match in Leeds in England where Ben Stokes played the innings of his life to steal an improbable victory.

“Always stay calm under pressure; as a leader, everyone is watching you.”

LEEDS, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Ben Stokes of England celebrates hitting the winning runs to win the 3rd Specsavers Ashes Test match between England and Australia at Headingley on August 25, 2019 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images) Gareth Copley
LEEDS, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Ben Stokes of England celebrates hitting the winning runs to win the 3rd Specsavers Ashes Test match between England and Australia at Headingley on August 25, 2019 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images) Gareth Copley Credit: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

This is Leadership 101. Easier said than done; but important.

On that occasion, emotion got the better of me and the instant I kicked that poor bin, I regretted my action.

If only I had taken a breath and asked: “Bull---t artist, or true to your word?”

That night at the hotel, I sat in my room by myself lamenting the loss, but also beating myself up about losing my cool and kicking the bin. If only . . .

Over the last three months and back in the cauldron of coaching the Lucknow Super Giants in the Indian Premier League, there were moments when I would catch myself and ask the basic question: “Bull---t artist, or true to your word?”

For the two-and-a-half years after I left the Australian coaching job, I spent time talking to tens of thousands of people about leadership and culture.

In fact, this weekly column came about after one of those speeches.

Seven West Media Director of News and Current Affairs and Editor-in-Chief, Anthony De Ceglie, was sitting in the audience watching of one of my presentations.

Justin Langers coaching style was on full display through Cricket Australias sanctioned documentary The Test. Pictured: When he kicked a bin in frustration.
Justin Langers coaching style was on full display through Cricket Australias sanctioned documentary The Test. Pictured: When he kicked a bin in frustration. Credit: The Test/Amazon/Supplied

Afterwards, he came up to me and said: “Why don’t you write about this stuff?”

With that, the conversation commenced, and the rest is history as they say.

The themes of my public presentations centred around transformational, authentic, compassionate, and adaptive leadership and the key pillars of strong, successful cultures.

All these subjects I share with others as advice through story-telling.

It’s fun — hopefully informative — and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

But guess what I have learned?

Talking, giving advice, and telling stories on stage, is easy compared to listening to that same advice, walking the talk, and doing what you say.

This is particularly important when you are under pressure, because it’s usually in moments of pressure that we make our biggest mistakes, or kick rubbish bins!

Since I’ve been back from India I’ve been asked how I enjoyed the experience.

Without hesitation I answered that my time was extraordinary, I loved every minute of it.

I preface my response by saying losing games still isn’t fun, but then I remind myself that even losing was OK if I caught myself with the “bull---t artist” question.

The thing about walking the talk is that the greatest reward is how you feel about yourself.

I have said for years that the one person you can’t lie to is yourself. You can lie, or at least sugar-coat anything to your family, friends or strangers, but when you are sitting alone by yourself you can’t lie.

As Dale Winbrow finished his famous poem:

“You can fool the whole world, down the highway of years, and take pats on the back as you pass.

“But your final reward will be heartache and tears if you’ve cheated the man in the glass.”

Other leadership 101 lessons — apart from “always stay calm under pressure; as a leader, everyone is watching you” — were tested over the last few months while coaching at the IPL.

For example, I often talk to people about taking their share of responsibility for their actions.

When things go wrong, most people look around and point the finger at others, “he should have done that, she should have done this”.

After each loss, the natural instinct is to blame others, but when I reminded myself to listen to my own advice and ask, “What could I have personally done better or differently to alter the outcome?”, I found this to be therapeutic and far more beneficial.

This approach ensured that I followed a path looking after what I could control, rather than spending time in the rabbit holes of others’ behaviours or performances. It also tempered the emotions of a loss.

Lucknow Super Giants head coach Justin Langer with captain KL Rahul.
Lucknow Super Giants head coach Justin Langer with captain KL Rahul. Credit: Justin Langer/Supplied

Another lesson of walking the talk was to “learn from every experience; whether perceived as good or bad, a success or a failure”.

Again, this is easier said than done, but when I took time to look at every win or loss from a broader perspective of what I could learn, I found my tempo was far more even compared to riding the rollercoaster of emotions that come with sport or life.

As parents, I believe this is very important.

If we can teach our kids that failure isn’t the end of the world, but rather an opportunity to learn and get better, they will be stronger and far more resilient.

The clincher is we can’t tell our kids this but then not do it ourselves. Much as they love us, a kid’s bull---t barometer is far more in tune than we may think.

A wise chairman told me when I joined my first publicly listed company as a non-executive director: “Whatever you do, don’t get caught up in the everyday movements of the stock price. This will drive you mad. Instead, get caught up in the fundamentals of the business. If you get that right, the stock price will look after itself over the long run.”

Justin Langer as head coach of the Lucknow Super Giants.
Justin Langer as head coach of the Lucknow Super Giants. Credit: Unknown/Supplied

Again, this advice was valuable as I rode the ups and downs of daily wins and losses.

Finally, my most important take in leadership 101, is to “be authentic, be yourself”.

Arriving in India I was excited and energised being back in the hot seat. I felt alive and happy. I had a skip in my step and was feeling light and free. This, I know, is when I am at my best.

Perception and other’s opinions are one thing, but if you can stay true to yourself and feel comfortable in your own skin, you will have more fun and feel liberated and free.

In India, I knew people were watching me, but the less I cared and the more I trusted myself, the better I felt. And that meant I could have a more positive influence on others.

My actions spoke much louder than any words, because anyone can smell a bull---t artist from a mile away.

And the person who can see it with more clarity than anyone else, is the one looking back at you in the mirror.

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