May 28, 2024

Paddy Upton: A leader helps others learn and grow in some shape or form

Paddy Upton delivers his corporate leadership workshop in association with Nexo Business Consulting in Dubai on June 14, 2023.

From playing a major role in the Indian national cricket team winning the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2011 to schooling business leaders in the fine nuances of leadership, Paddy Upton confidently strides two trending domains: sports and business.

As a world-class leadership coach, motivational speaker, mental game coach, sports scientist, fitness trainer, author, university professor and podcaster, Upton, 54, is all this and more.

Ahead of his delivering an exclusive corporate leadership workshop in Dubai on June 14, 2023 the super fit South African leadership guru sat down with Middle East 247 for this exclusive interview spanning a range of subjects.

Excerpts from the interview:

What key challenges do business leaders in the Middle East typically encounter?

Business leaders in different industries in the Middle East face unique key challenges. However, there are some common factors that are also identifiable. Firstly, the Middle East workforce is characterised by a significant amount of diversity; cultures, nationalities. As the world increasingly becomes more interconnected, business leaders must navigate and lead in a multicultural environment. With numerous cultures and nationalities constituting the traditional regional workforce, managing diversity becomes a top challenge.

Secondly, the temporary nature of business teams or employees poses another significant challenge. Unlike the past, where loyalty and long-term commitment to a company were common, today’s businesses tend to experience high turnover rates, particularly in industries like ICT. Individuals habitually change jobs every few years for better prospects or growth opportunities, creating a more transitory workforce in the region. This trend is more prevalent in newer industries, while legacy businesses such as banking and manufacturing may still have employees staying for longer periods.

Additionally, the Middle East has witnessed the emergence of new industries driven by the internet and digital advancements. However, some legacy businesses continue to operate with outdated leadership and management practices rooted in the industrial era. Contrasting with these older practices, newer businesses are adopting contemporary knowledge age leadership styles.

In the industrial age, leaders were valued for their superior knowledge and would primarily instruct their subordinates. However, in the knowledge age, where information is readily available through the internet, leaders in the region face the challenge of shifting towards harnessing the collective intelligence within their teams. This contemporary leadership style emphasises collaboration and knowledge sharing, requiring cultural environments that promote psychological safety, innovation, and learning.

One of the challenges in the Middle East is that many industries, especially those led by individuals over 50 years old, still employ a command and control approach, relying on instruction-based leadership and traditional carrot-and-stick motivators. However, this outdated leadership style is becoming less effective in engaging the modern workforce, particularly post-pandemic.

Employees are seeking meaning, purpose, and opportunities for growth, going beyond monetary rewards and career advancement. The transition from instruction-based leadership to a more collaborative and engaging knowledge age leadership style is a significant challenge for business leaders in the Middle East. Failure to adapt to these changing dynamics can result in disengaged employees and underperformance, impacting a company’s bottom line.

Paddy Upton is a sought-after international leadership and mental coach.
Paddy Upton is a sought-after international leadership and mental coach.

Sports and business coaching; what appeals to you from either or both of them?

The mix of sports and business really appeals to me. Each domain has its own unique aspects. In sports, the goals are very defined compared to business. The rules of engagement are clearly defined, and the playing field is usually equal in terms of team size and budgets.

In business, teams can vary in size, and the rules of engagement differ. It is possible to get away with questionable practices for longer periods in business. However, both sports and business eventually face consequences for such practices.

What fascinates me is taking the best aspects from each and seeing how they can be applied to the other. In sports, it is about the 1% difference in performance that can give a team an edge. In business, it is about leadership, creating a culture of engagement, collaboration, and playing to strengths. These human aspects of high performance go beyond technology and data.

A homemaker with three kids is a leader, as is the CEO of a 5,000-strong global workforce. In this context what is your definition of a leader?

A leader, in my opinion, is someone who has the opportunity to help others learn and grow in some shape or form. It is a broad definition, so you are correct in saying that even a stay-at-home mom with three kids can be considered a leader in her own right.

Additionally, a CEO of a company with 5,000 employees worldwide is also a leader. Their role involves creating opportunities for others, to learn and grow within their positions and lives, developing their skills, output, and performance, which ultimately benefits the company. Similarly, in a sports team, a leader is someone who genuinely intends to serve others in their learning, growth, and development.

How does a leader serve others compared to serving their own agenda?

Every one of us has an element of self-serving in our actions and goals. However, I believe that as leaders, we are most effective when we operate with the intention of serving the people within the system we are responsible for.

When we come from a place of serving others, it aligns us with an orientation that maximises effectiveness. Conversely, when we act and speak to serve our own agenda, we may deliver short-term results, but we fail to bring people along on the journey. This self-oriented approach is less effective in the long run and lacks the ability to foster collaboration and teamwork.

Will the AI juggernaut be beneficial or not to human roles in the work context?

When we look at the potential for AI to take over human roles, it is essential to consider historical examples. Take the invention of calculators, for instance. Initially, mathematicians were concerned that calculators would diminish the value of their expertise and offerings.

However, instead of replacing mathematicians, calculators made basic arithmetic widely accessible, allowing mathematicians to advance and break new ground in their field.

In a similar vein, big data and AI can propel us to the next level of our functioning by automating more routine tasks. So, while AI may handle certain aspects, there are areas where human expertise and leadership can flourish.

Paddy Upton with the Indian national cricket team that won the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup.
Paddy Upton with the Indian national cricket team that won the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup.

How do you perceive an AI-leadership interface?

When it comes to leadership and high performance, two areas that I am particularly passionate about, there is a significant overlap and potential synergy with AI. Traditionally, leadership involved giving direction, providing information, and exhibiting certain characteristics.

However, with advancements in technology, AI can now assist in strategy development by generating smarter strategies based on input from multiple sources. For example, a team of individuals can brainstorm ideas, and then AI can summarise and prioritise the most relevant points; offering actionable insights for execution. By leveraging AI in devising strategies and decision-making processes, we can explore new dimensions of leadership effectiveness.

How can AI integrate with human qualities in the context of leadership?

In recent years, leadership discussions have emphasised concepts like employee engagement, client service, diversity, inclusion, compassion, and psychological safety. However, these terms often remained at a surface level, becoming mere “suitcase words” that lacked deeper exploration.

With the advent of AI, there is an opportunity to unpack these concepts and bring forth their essence. Human qualities, such as active and empathetic listening, which significantly impact the quality of thinking, can be amplified in leadership roles. Although AI may provide certain functionalities, its ability to listen and engage deeply is limited compared to human interaction. This opens the door for leaders to embody and prioritise these essential human traits; fostering more meaningful connections and enabling clearer and more inclusive thinking.

How can integrating feminine energies and qualities into leadership contribute to its effectiveness?

When discussing gender diversity in leadership, it is not merely about the presence of females in positions of power. The focus should be on integrating feminine energies and qualities that come naturally to many women.

Traits, such as caring, compassion, inclusivity, and openness to different perspectives can enhance leadership effectiveness. In contrast, traditional masculine leadership styles often involve more ego-driven approaches. By embracing a more balanced and inclusive leadership paradigm, we can tap into a broader range of human qualities that can make us more effective leaders.

How can AI rehumanise the workforce?

During the industrial era and the subsequent schooling system, there was a tendency to dehumanise the workforce; treating individuals as worker bees proficient at following instructions. The emergence of AI now poses a challenge to this paradigm. It presents an opportunity to reintroduce humanity into the workplace and leadership.

AI can automate routine tasks, freeing up human potential for more creative, critical, and empathetic endeavours. By leveraging AI as a tool, rather than a replacement, we can foster an environment where human qualities and skills are valued and cultivated, rehumanising both the workforce and leadership practices.

What links the sports and business leaders you encounter across the globe?

There are commonalities among the leaders whom I reach out to in a professional context. However, there are also notable differences. When it comes to leadership principles, there are universal principles for living life that have been taught to humans through various wisdom teachers, spiritual leaders, or scriptures. These teachings guide individuals on how to lead a good life as a human being.

Interestingly, these principles can be directly applied to leadership.

Paddy Upton’s relationship with the Indian national cricket team started years ago.
Paddy Upton’s relationship with the Indian national cricket team started years ago.

So, is there a universal wisdom that applies to leadership?

Yes, there is. The universal wisdom I mentioned is not entirely new. It has been around for a long time, but what is new is its application within different contexts. The principles remain the same, but their implementation varies. For example, a CEO in Cape Town or Auckland may tend to think within a regional context, whereas leaders in Dubai, London, or New York may have a broader, more global perspective. So, the same principles apply, but the scope of their application differs.

How do cultural and regional differences impact leadership styles?

Cultural and regional differences have a significant impact on leadership styles. The diversity within societies and countries influences how leaders approach their roles. For instance, a CEO in Australia, which has become more diverse but was predominantly a monochromic society in the past, may have a leadership style aligned with that context.

On the other hand, a CEO in South Africa would encounter greater diversity in terms of ethnic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, and languages. Similarly, India’s CEOs face even more linguistic and cultural diversity within their context. Each CEO typically has to approach diversity with a different lens, shaped by their cultural environment.

How do different value systems manifest themselves in leadership?

Different countries tend to have distinct value systems that come to the fore. In some regions, power and status hold great importance. Therefore, leaders may feel compelled to exercise power over others to demonstrate their authority.

Likewise, individuals in these societies appreciate and admire those who display their status. However, in other countries, such behaviour may be frowned upon, as individuals believe that power and status should not be flaunted. Leaders need to understand these varying value systems and decide for themselves what is important in terms of their personal values and the legacy they wish to leave through their work.

How do leaders navigate conflicts between their personal values and the values of the organisations they are part of?

Leaders sometimes find themselves in a challenging situation when their personal values clash with the values of the organisation they are involved with. This calls for courageous decisions. They may choose to align with the organisation’s values, compromising their own, or attempt to change the organisation from within; risking potential backlash.

Alternatively, they might decide to part ways and seek an environment where there is a better alignment with their own values. It requires careful consideration and introspection to determine the best course of action in such cases.

What is the status of mental health and well-being in the Middle East?

When it comes to mental health and well-being, there is universal wisdom that we sometimes stray away from. Covid-19 has highlighted how we have neglected this wisdom and is now bringing people back to it.

For example, getting good sleep, maintaining proper nutrition, and engaging in exercise are essential for overall well-being. In the Middle East, exercise can be challenging due to the hot weather and limited outdoor facilities. Relationships are also compromised to some extent in transient working environments.

Stress management is another important aspect that we tend to overlook. The pandemic has emphasised the importance of nurturing ourselves through meditation, mindfulness, creative techniques, or full engagement in the present moment. By attending to these simple things, we can maintain good mental health and avoid issues in the long run.

Paddy Upton says in sports, a 1% difference in performance can give a team an edge.
Paddy Upton says in sports, a 1% difference in performance can give a team an edge.

As the mental conditioning coach of the triumphant Indian national cricket team in 2011 how did you get the team to be where you wanted them to be?

When I first got involved with the Indian cricket team in 2008, they had an Australian coach named Greg Chappell. He was considered one of the most experienced and pedigreed cricket coaches in the world, with a deep understanding of the game due to his own playing career. However, his tenure was cut short as the players expressed dissatisfaction and felt that he was imposing his own way of doing things on them, which led to a breakdown in their relationship.

Gary Kirsten and I, both South Africans, then joined the team as coaches. Many players had acknowledged Chappell’s knowledge of the game, but believed that it was the way his knowledge was applied that caused the issues with them. In a way, Chappell was attempting to impose his Australian approach on the Indian players, who were superstar performers in their own right.

Being non-Indian, we recognised that we couldn’t simply tell the players what to do. We didn’t fully understand the Indian mindset, so we approached the situation by asking questions, paying attention, listening, and seeking to understand the Indian mentality. We [Kirsten and Upton] wanted to provide an environment that was conducive to the team members, rather than thrusting our own ideas on them.

Our approach was a complete turnaround from Chappell’s. We were fortunate to work with incredibly talented athletes who had the raw materials to excel. We had access to good data and analysis, which is often a given in many business environments. However, we needed to tap into the potential of the players and the existing talent within the team. The systems in place were producing average results, and we wanted to get more out of the team.

Leadership played a crucial role in creating a culture and environment that engaged the players and increased learning. Our aim was to create a happy team, where the players enjoyed being in the environment and worked together more effectively. We also recognised that the intelligence and expertise lay with the players on the field, rather than just with the coaching or leadership team. This was a shift from the traditional approach seen in business contexts.

In summary, my experience with the Indian cricket team involved understanding the Indian mentality, creating a conducive environment, and harnessing the intelligence within the team to improve performance and create a cohesive unit.

What were some of the highlights working in the Indian national cricket team context?

One of the highlights was the opportunity to learn and immerse ourselves [Kirsten and Upton] in a brand new culture. Despite not fully understanding it initially, we managed to adapt and create a highly successful unit within that cultural framework. Our team achieved remarkable feats, reaching the number one spot in Test cricket and winning the World Cup. So, many things did work out positively.

What were some of the challenges you faced with the Indian squad at the time?

One of the obvious challenges was receiving accurate feedback. As a leader and coach, I believe in constantly improving and serving the people and the organisation I lead. To do that, it is crucial to receive honest feedback on what works and what could be better. However, in the Indian culture, giving negative or critical feedback is not something that comes naturally.

When we [Kirsten and Upton] asked the players for feedback on specific approaches or strategies, the responses were often positive. However, we soon discovered that it was not necessarily because they were genuinely happy, but rather due to a hesitance to provide negative feedback to leadership.

This reticence stemmed from past consequences associated with offering critical feedback to leaders. Overcoming this challenge required creating an environment where we [Kirsten and Upton] could obtain honest feedback and eventually establish a safe space where people understood the importance of constructive feedback, especially regarding areas that could be improved upon.

What is it like working with sports superstars and their egos?

Working with individuals who possess big egos and are driven to excel at the highest level is always a challenge. These superstars have their own ambitions and aspirations, and aligning them with the collective vision of the team is crucial.

The idea that there is no “I” in team, suggesting that individuals must subvert themselves entirely for the team, is not a concept I subscribe to. In high-performing environments, people are there to further their own careers and deliver results that serve their personal journey. The key is finding a way to marry their personal goals with what the team wants and achieving alignment.

When there is alignment, it is beautiful because everyone is moving in the same direction. However, when there isn’t alignment, it becomes tricky to navigate the behaviour of a high-performing superstar that undermines others or fails to move the team in the desired direction.

Often, leaders and teams end up spending a significant amount of energy just keeping the ship afloat or addressing issues caused by these misalignments. This diverts energy away from propelling the team forward in the agreed-upon direction and it can be considered wasted time. This challenge is not unique to any specific organisation and can happen in various contexts.

Paddy Upton with Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.
Paddy Upton with Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.

Is there a historical figure, either living or passed, whom you admire?

Yes, there is a historical figure that I greatly admire, and that is Nelson Mandela. I once had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with him, and that one interaction has had a profound impact on me. I am well aware that every iconic leader throughout history has faced criticism, and Mandela is no exception. However, this particular interaction with him was transformative. Allow me to share the story.

At the time, I was with the South African cricket team, and we had the chance to meet and interact with Mandela. On one occasion, I had a cherished photograph that I wanted him to sign. I approached Mandela’s chief security guard, whom I knew, and asked for assistance.

He told me to go to the back of the cricket stadium where Mandela’s presidential car was parked, waiting to whisk the legendary head of state to another official event already behind schedule. The plan was for me to hand Mandela the photograph while he was inside the presidential car – away from the public eye. I agreed and eagerly waited at the side of the car.

As soon as Mandela sat in the car I joined him inside and handed him the photograph and a gold-tipped pen. Mandela tried to immediately sign the photograph with the pen but was unsuccessful in doing so and I realised that the pen I had brought required some effort to make the ink flow.

Nervously, I told Mandela that he needed to push the nib of the pen against the photograph surface. Unfortunately, when he did so, a large splatter of gold ink landed on the photograph. I immediately thought that the photograph was ruined. Surprisingly, Mandela grabbed his shirt sleeve and used it to wipe away the ink stain. He turned to me and apologised, saying that he had nearly damaged my photograph. He then took the time to find another pen and signed the photograph – perfectly!

Mandela’s gesture during that moment has left a lasting impression on me. Here was a man of immense significance, a president attending another presidential meeting, yet he showed genuine concern for potentially spoiling my photograph. He did not hesitate to use his own presidential attire to clean up the spilt ink. There were no cameras or public attention; he was simply being himself. It was a small act of thoughtfulness that revealed his humility and genuine care for others.

What lesson did you learn from this cherished encounter with Nelson Mandela?

This incident made me reflect on the true meaning of humility and other orientation. It reminded me that as leaders, we should pay attention to others; listen to their needs, and support them in being their best.

In a world where ego and self-orientation often dominate, Mandela’s example taught me the power of focusing on others. When we genuinely care for and invest in others, they are empowered to deliver great results. Ultimately, this reflects positively on our leadership.

How has this single experience influenced your approach to leadership?

This encounter with Nelson Mandela made me more aware of the importance of other people and having an other-oriented mindset. In high-performance environments, it is easy to become self-centred and driven by ego.

However, I firmly believe that as leaders, we have the greatest impact when we prioritise others and their needs. By listening and providing support, we enable them to thrive and achieve outstanding results. In turn, this recognition and success will come back to us as leaders. The more we focus on ourselves, the less we engage with others and receive recognition for our leadership.

Why do you do what you are currently doing in life?

The main incentive behind my actions in life is the desire to add value to others. This became apparent early on when I worked with cricketers and rugby players, helping them improve their fitness and strength. I enjoyed the process of passing on my knowledge to assist them in becoming better athletes.

Later, I worked with street kids, aiming to provide them with systems, structures, and support to improve their lives and the environments they lived in. This motivation to create a positive impact on people’s lives has carried over into my work in business coaching, leadership coaching, and mental coaching.

What motivates you on a daily basis?

What motivates me on a daily basis is the opportunity to add value to others and inspire them. This is not something I consciously decided or invented; rather, it has been a consistent theme throughout my career. Whether it was working as a sports scientist, fitness trainer, or in leadership coaching, my motivation has always been about sharing my knowledge, ideas, and experiences – to help others on their journey.

The thought of adding value to others and making a difference in their journey truly ignites my passion. It drives me to continually learn, gain more experience, and make sense of my knowledge and experiences. I am inspired to share what I have learned as much as possible, without being attached to the outcome or results. If I believe that I have done my best to add value to others, it brings me a deep sense of satisfaction and allows me to sleep well at night.

Paddy Upton is following up ‘The Barefoot Coach’ book with a sequel.
Paddy Upton is following up ‘The Barefoot Coach’ book with a sequel.

Why did you author ‘The Barefoot Coach: Life-changing Insights from Coaching the World’s Best Cricketers’?

At one time, I wanted to move away from sports coaching and mental coaching and explore other areas. I felt that I had accumulated too much experience and knowledge to keep it all in my head. There were people asking for my help and guidance in mental coaching, and I wanted to share my insights.

Writing the book was a way for me to capture the best lessons and make them widely available. It was about sharing and adding value to others. Once the book was written and published, I was not concerned about promoting it or tracking sales. It was more about knowing that I had shared what I had been gifted with through my experiences; particularly during my time with the Indian national cricket team.

Will there be a sequel to ‘The Barefoot Coach’ book?

Yes, I am currently in the process of writing a second book.

After recently conducting workshops in Singapore and in Dubai why do you next head to India?

After Dubai I head to India to deliver a corporate talk. Most of my trips to India involve a 90-minute corporate talk where I discuss aspects of leadership and high performance. Additionally, there are leadership workshops that can range from one day up to six days, and sometimes spread out over six months.

Meanwhile, Prasad Datar, Founder & CEO of Nexo, said Nexo Business Consulting UAE, in association with Leap Sports and JSK Events will host the exclusive ‘Unlock your Leadership A-game’ leadership development workshop in Dubai on June 14, 2023 led by

Datar stated the one-day workshop will deep dive into navigating the fast-changing leadership terrain; harnessing collective intelligence of business teams; crafting a leadership legacy; the ‘Big Five’ of personal mastery as a leader, and more.

To attend the workshop and for further information visit or write to [email protected]

Last Updated on 9 months by Arnold Pinto

    Arnold Pinto

    Arnold Pinto

    Arnold Pinto is an award-winning journalist with wide-ranging Middle East and Asia experience in the tech, aerospace, defence, luxury watchmaking, business, automotive, and fashion verticals. He is passionate about conserving endangered native wildlife globally. Arnold enjoys 4x4 off-roading, camping and exploring global destinations off the beaten track.
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