KP’s power struggle

Four years ago, at Time magazine’s banquet to celebrate the 100 so-called most influential people in the world, a researcher, interested in the nature of power relationships, decided to conduct a small experiment. Specifically, she was interested in the notion of how far or how little those who perceive themselves to be powerful empathise with others.

She walked up to Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs. She had an ink pen and a pad of periwinkle-coloured post-it notes and she asked him to stick a note onto his forehead and then write on it the letter ‘E’. That Blankfein obliged says something for him but the way round he wrote the letter, so that he could read it, but others could only do so backwards, confirmed the researcher’s suspicions.

It confirmed, in fact, a paper published in the journal ‘Psychological Science’, two years earlier. The theory put forward by the authors of the paper was that the more power someone has, the less empathetic they are towards others in their group. They called it ‘perspective taking’ and how far you were unable to step outside your own bubble and appreciate others was a good indication of the standing of a person within an organisation.

In each of the four experiments that the psychologists used – of which the ‘E’ writing was one- those imbued with power were more self-obsessed and less empathetic. Power or, more importantly, the perception of power, they said, ‘was more likely to lead individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others’ perspectives.’

All of which, of course, brings us to Kevin Pietersen and his on-going power struggle with the ECB, just at the moment the England team take on South Africa. In every relationship- personal, professional, business- there is a balance of power. Consciously or unconsciously, it affects everything we do: how we act, how we react and how we talk. This power game is never constant, shifting over time according to the changes in status of those involved.

Over the years it has been fascinating to watch the manoeuvring between Pietersen and his bosses and the way the power game has shifted, sometimes subtly. Because Pietersen has made it clear from the outset that his motivation has been to look after number one- no criticism this, since it has helped him perform consistently brilliantly for England- his relationship with his employer is, has been and will be more strained.

At the start of his international career, as with every player, Pietersen needed England more than they needed him. All he had at this stage was outrageous talent, a certain reputation, a silly haircut and an interesting back story. He needed England and Test cricket to turn that promise and potential into something more tangible- pounds, dollars and rupees for one, and, more importantly, status as a player- in the most rounded sense of the word- in the game.

Had Pietersen made certain demands at this point, he would have been laughed at and told where to go. In 2005 it was Pietersen who was desperate for England, hence the tattoos and the frequent exclamations of belonging and love. At the Oval in 2005 his post lunch assault on Brett Lee helped secure the Ashes but also Pietersen’s reputation as one of the most thrilling players in the modern game. He had arrived but power resided with his bosses.

Things began to shift with the advent of the Indian Premier League in 2008. By this stage, Pietersen was three years into a brilliant international career; he was firmly established and well remunerated and was about to be even more so when Bangalore Royal Challengers paid $1.55m for him for the inaugural tournament. Suddenly, new vistas opened up. Specifically, a new market to be exploited and a new fan base in which to revel.

When the England captaincy was thrust upon him mid-way through the summer of that year, Pietersen’s power increased exponentially. He now perceived himself to be the most powerful man in English cricket, the notion of which his advisers did not disabuse him. IN the manner of his subsequent behaviour when he called for Peter Moores to be sacked whilst on safari in South Africa can be seen the actions of a man ‘anchored in his own vantage point’, disregarding the views of a number of England players- James Anderson, for example- who thought Moores was doing a good job.

Removed from the captaincy, he took a minor humbling. An injury to his Achilles tendon and a hitherto unsuspected weakness against left-arm spin added to this loss of power and the next year or two was more difficult to him as he reacted to his changed status. It also coincided with the rise of the Andocracy of Flower and Strauss and a move away from the cult of the individual to something more cohesive. Back in the pack, beset by injuries and the occasional glitch in form, Pietersen’s public pronouncements were less provocative, less divisive.

In his recent dash for special treatment, oblivious to the feelings of others and the exquisitely bad timing with the South African series upon us, can be seen Pietersen as once again as the invincible (in his own mind) alpha male. He bounced back in one-day internationals in the winter, with consecutive hundreds against Pakistan; His Test form, ever since his stupendous hundred in Colombo, has been sublime. His status as one of the most sought after players in the IPL was confirmed when the Delhi Daredevils paid $2m for his services. He has been batting as well as ever, as his performances in Test cricket this summer, and most recently for Surrey at Guildford confirmed. Once again, he feels powerful, untouchable.

In time, neither party will need the other. Pietersen will have scored 10,000 Test runs, as is his stated aim, and will have more money than he needs. At that point, he will free himself from England’s shackles and do as he pleases. England, too, will move on with a new generation of talented players. But that time is not yet. Pietersen still desires the limelight- as his attempts to finagle a place this week in the World Twenty20 suggest- and no doubt Stuart Broad, England’s Twenty20 captain, would dearly love to have Pietersen to increase his chances of winning. So we have this delicious tension.

What Pietersen and his advisors have failed to account for are the external forces that impact upon any power struggle. Like Andy Flower, for example, quiet but extremely tough, resistant to being pushed around, keen on principles rather than personalities and charged, as he himself said, with looking after ‘English cricket in its entirety’ rather than one man. Like the other fine players at Flower’s disposal, too, which means that Pietersen’s demands carry less weight than they would, say, twenty years ago in a less successful era.

This week, Pietersen has been behaving like Blankfein at that banquet, sticking a note to his head with the letter ‘E’ written so that only he and not the rest of the room could read it. A note of warning, though; the experiment with Blankfein took place in May 2008: four months later, Goldman Sachs went cap in hand to Warren Buffett to avoid bankruptcy and a month after that they were forced to take $10billion from the US Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Programme.

Despite all his posturing this week, Pietersen’s name yesterday was not amongst those announced by the ECB to defend the World Twenty20. Sometimes the Masters of the Universe are not quite as powerful as they think they are.