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Wars of succession

The stunning decision from Mahendra Singh Dhoni to retire from India’s Test cricket team at the conclusion of the Boxing Day Test match with Australia a few days ago has sent shock waves through the country. Whatever the criticism of Dhoni’s captaincy of late, and however shaky India’s performance overseas remains, the fact is that he delivered results. Under him, the Indian team looked extremely confident of its abilities. It is likely that the entire story is not known as yet – Dhoni was always one for playing his cards close to his chest. But even if there are additional facts yet to emerge, one thing is sadly true: Dhoni’s abrupt exit reveals that, once again, Indian institutions fail to manage succession planning.

Perhaps because of this country’s obsession with hierarchy, and because of the tendency in India to laud a particular leader of an institution as somehow indispensable to its success, departures tend to be of two kinds: either under-prepared, as is Dhoni’s, or excessively delayed. Both have unfortunate implications for leadership. In the case of Dhoni, it is generally felt that in-form batsman Virat Kohli is ready to assume the mantle of captaincy. But it is feared that he will take command of a team divided – something that might not have been the case if there was a clear succession plan, with Kohli taking over more and more authority over a well-defined interval.

The difference with other, more successful teams is revealing. The Australians, in particular, manage this very well. When Steve Waugh retired, everyone knew Ricky Ponting was his successor, and had known for some time; Ponting already had considerable authority. Indeed, Cricket Australia had shown the way till then; in 1984, at the nadir of Australian cricket, Kim Hughes had retired, blinking back tears, in the wake of another massacre from the then-invincible West Indies. From then till Ponting’s departure, Australia had just four Test captains: Allan Border, Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, and Ponting. It was under that period of institutional stability that the team rose to rival, and perhaps surpass, the West Indies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Most global companies, too, place a premium on a succession plan. The legendary Jack Welch famously declared more than a decade before he retired as head of General Electric that, from then on, choosing a successor would be the most important task left to him, and that he thought about it every day. But Indian companies, with a few exceptions, have struggled to do so. The exceptions are, unsurprisingly, the organisations with a more professional reputation. The Tata Group put into place a search committee that eventually decided on Cyrus Mistry to replace Ratan Tata after the latter stepped down. The industry leader in such practices has probably been Hindustan Unilever Limited or HUL, which has for decades identified talent that could one day run the company – internally, such executives are known as “listers”. But even there, there have been open questions. In the early 2000s, the question at HUL was whether the “listers” should be told that they were being singled out — would that make the transition more or less secure? These are knotty questions.

It isn’t just Indian companies that struggle – many other institutions, whether academic or policy-making have similar problems. And, of course, there are political parties. The succession in the Bharatiya Janata Party, in which Lal Krishna Advani staved off Narendra Modi’s ascent for as long as he could, is representative of the problems. All that can be hoped for is that now that Mahendra Singh Dhoni has signalled the approaching end of his career, the handing over of the one-day and Twenty20 captaincy will be better planned.

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