Kevin Pietersen is a game changer. His powerful, audacious stroke play can take a match away from the opposition, or turn a draw into a victory. England fans are fond of recalling an express double century against Australia at the Adelaide Oval during the Ashes series of 2010/11, which powered the tourists into a winning position following a first day lost to rain. This week, Pietersen took on South Africa’s world class bowling attack and made a mouthwatering 149. In a surprise encore, the part-time off-spinner destroyed their top order with the ball.
But as the curtain closed on his virtuoso performance, the music stopped. Lord’s – the final test in the series – could be his last, he said. Why? “There are obstacles.”
Pietersen’s threat of a snap retirement came immediately after his request of time off from a minor Test series to play in lucrative Indian Premier League, and to save himself for the bigger England games.
At the press conference after the weekend’s Test match, journalists probed and pushed. Pietersen tried his best to block but, like the shot player he is, couldn’t help but have a tickle, give them chances. He spoke of “the dressing room”, and confirmed it was “absolutely not about money”. It was not difficult to infer that the rest of the squad may have had enough of the outspoken maverick.
We don’t all manage a Kevin Pietersen, but some of us may recognise the type. Unpredictable, ham-fisted, brilliant. An old boss, describing a colleague of extraordinary talent who had managed to upset almost all his co-workers, told me: “Ideally, I’d isolate him in a soundproof room and just let him get on with it. But I don’t have one.” Very few managers do.
So, what to do?
Anyone who has seen Pietersen peacock around the boundary rope would presume he is as confident as they come. Wrong, say those who have led him. Michael Vaughan, who captained England – and Pietersen – to victory during that spellbinding Ashes summer of 2005, recalls having to text Pietersen regularly to reassure him, and speak to him as often as possible. “KP is not a confident person,” recalls Vaughan. “He obviously has great belief in his ability but that’s not quite the same thing … I know KP wants to be loved.”
That is true of many mavericks. For all their braggadocio, they crave constant approval. It’s as if they cannot quite believe in their own brilliance. As a boss, you need to listen to them, reassure them. And praise them when they do something especially good (if you constantly shower them with praise they may not believe you).
Some managers of mavericks espouse flexibility, stressing that any slack you cut the hotshot has to apply to others – and that there is little sense in letting bureaucracy obstruct brilliance.
But despite managers taking such measures, some KPs still don’t survive. If the maverick is rude and troublesome only to his boss, and his boss can live with it, he may hold on – as long as his boss recognises his value to the business and accepts that living with the maverick’s flaws is a price worth paying.
Yet what does for most mavericks is their adverse affect on others. Their condescension towards coworkers may cause conflict. Colleagues may resent the fact that they are demanding – and perhaps receiving – preferential treatment.
As a boss, your responsibility is to reassure their colleagues, make sure they feel that they are getting a fair deal. This is not always possible.
If not, you may have to do without your maverick: no one, even KP, can be bigger than the team.