LeBron James, Heroic Leadership, and the Danger of Narratives

For those of you who don’t follow basketball, the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs last night for this year’s NBA championship. It was a classic series featuring seven future Hall of Famers and going the full seven games.

What made this series particularly fascinating (besides the unbelievable level of play throughout) was that it featured the best player on the planet, LeBron James.

James is a freak of nature. He’s built like a power forward, he moves with the speed and agility of a wing, he sees the floor like a point guard, and he defends all five positions. In human-speak, he is a transcendent basketball Swiss Army knife, not just versatile, but superiorly so.

He also happens to be polarizing for a variety of reasons. He was anointed the future king of basketball while still in junior high school. He decided to leave his hometown team for his current one (an entirely justified decision) in a less than graceful manner, which created a lot of animosity. (Beyond that one minor transgression, which has been completely overblown in a way that all things sports are, James has been a model citizen.) He is the classic Goliath, and we love rooting against Goliath.

Because of this, James is intensely scrutinized and unfairly judged. Now that he’s won back-to-back championships, that scrutiny is likely to fade. But what I find fascinating is why we so easily and incorrectly judged him in the first place.

This series was fraught with those moments. It largely centered around James’s performance (he would go from hero to goat back to hero in a single quarter of play), but no player or coach was spared. And in the end, all of it was wrong.

Zach Lowe wrote in Grantland:

We remember players for their work in big moments, and that is never going to change. But when we overvalue those big moments at the expense of everything else, we do both those players and the game itself something of a disservice. We ignore the role of randomness and luck, as Henry Abbott beautifully reminded us this week. We ignore defense on a possession-by-possession basis, mostly because defense is hard to see and understand.

And we pick and choose which big moments are really big in strange ways that don’t make a lot of sense. Why is Leonard’s missed free throw more important, and more memorable, than the fact that no other Spur made a field goal in overtime? Why is Parker’s missed free throw in overtime less important than Leonard’s miss and Ginobili’s miss in regulation? Why do we eviscerate Ginobili for his eight turnovers while passing over the fact that Miami turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions in the last 1:10 of regulation in an elimination NBA Finals game — including two turnovers by LeBron? The Bobcats might have done better on those three possessions than LeBron and the Miami Heat managed.

The result — the Heat won, the Spurs lost — too often informs our analysis of the process.

These aren’t just wise words about sports, they’re wise words about almost everything we do. The reason stories are so valuable is that we are particularly attuned to them, and we are more likely to learn and integrate knowledge in that form. The problem with stories is that we are so attuned to them, we confuse narratives for truth. It is so easy to assign credit and blame in simplistic and incorrect ways, and to frame it as “rigorous analysis.” Daniel Kahneman has written extensively about our proclivity for finding causality where causality does not exist.

The other thing I found fascinating about this series was how it embodied our collective mindset about leadership. James has consistently been criticized throughout his career for being too unselfish “in the clutch.” In basketball, there is a mythos that it’s the best player’s job to “take over the game” in the fourth quarter, that the laws of team basketball are suddenly rendered irrelevant with the game on the line. We reward players who buy into this mythos, the classic example being Kobe Bryant. And so the common wisdom is, when the game is on the line, there’s no player you’d rather have on your team than Kobe.

But when you look at the data, it turns out that the classic wisdom is wrong. In crunch time, Kobe makes it easier for the opposing team’s defense, because they know with almost utter certainty that he’s going to shoot the ball. And the numbers confirm that this is a poor strategy, as Kobe consistently shoots worse in the last few minutes of a game than he does on average.

For years, James was eviscerated for his crunch time unselfishness, even though he single-handedly made mediocre teams great with his superior team-oriented play. We loved him for his unselfishness, unless it was the final minutes of the fourth quarter, at which point we expected him to get selfish again.

It’s totally irrational, but it’s pervasive not just in sports, but in business and in life. Our classic notion of leadership is of the heroic kind, and even though that’s beginning to change in leadership circles, old mindsets are hard to break.

Photo by Keith Allison. CC BY-SA 2.0.

May Progress Report on Balance and Impact

“I think I’m probably going to end up like a Tex Winter at some point. Maybe like a Pete Newell. Pete was on the sidelines for a number of teams for maybe the last 15-20 years of his life where he just encouraged people how to play. He sat with Lenny Wilkens in Cleveland for a number of years. He was a helpful consultant. That might be what I’m left to do — be a mentor of some sort.”

Phil Jackson, 67-year old basketball
coaching legend on his basketball future

The end of May has arrived, month five of my self-imposed and hopefully temporary retirement. As I noted a few weeks ago, I have some clarity on some professional goals and even some ideas about how to achieve them. As expected, this whole process has been both exciting and scary. It’s also sometimes depressing. When you put your heart and soul and sweat and tears into something for ten years, it becomes a huge part of who you are. Unraveling that feels like therapy, in both good and bad ways.

Earlier today, I read the above quote from Phil Jackson, and I found it a huge downer. That guy won 11 rings. I know he’s 67 with bad hips and a bad back and that he doesn’t want to do the coaching grind anymore, but there are undoubtedly better ways for him to be contributing to the game right now. What’s worse is that I kind of see myself in his words right now, even though I’m 30 years younger and nowhere near as accomplished.

I still get consulting inquiries, all of which I’ve turned down so far. It’s nice to know that people still respect you. It’s even nicer that Groupaya is still around and that Rebecca Petzel is still working as a consultant, as I can point people to either of them and feel good about the referral.

But I find a lot of that hard as well. It’s hard to turn down great projects, especially when your bank account is going in the wrong direction. Chatting with people about this stuff gets the intellectual juices flowing. Then the ego kicks in, as I imagine what I’d do if I took on those projects.

When I inevitably refer the work to my peers, I’m sometimes deflated by what I imagine will not happen because I’m not taking on the work. A lot of that is pure ego, silly and wrong. Some of it is not. Either way, it can be hard to let go.

Sometimes, I see work happening in less-than-skillful ways, and I get angry and feel myself wanting to fall back into comfortable roles and patterns. “Hire me as a consultant, and I’ll show you how it’s done!” I think to myself. Maybe I’m right. However, if I’m honest with myself about what it means to make a true impact while maintaining my health and sanity, I remember why I’m trying to break out of that very mindset.

Earlier this month, I attended the wonderful Creating Space conference in Baltimore, where Esther Nieves shared her motto: “Slow the pace, stay in the race.” I try to remind myself of this constantly, and when I’m actually practicing it, I can see it working. I’m thinking about things in a methodical way, and I’m liking how that process is going and how balanced my life is feeling while I’m doing that. I’m talking to a lot of people, listening deeply, trying to challenge my own assumptions about what needs to happen in the world. I’m doing experiments systematically, and I’m learning a lot that way.

Still, it’s hard. It does not come naturally for me to go slow, even when I’m actually and literally running. I occasionally go on long runs with my sister, who is constantly encouraging me to slow down so that I can run longer. I just can’t do it. I get bored. I’ll end up stopping after five miles, completely gassed, and she’ll keep running another three or four miles.

When I’m not using all of my skills, I feel underutilized and unhappy. I just have to keep reminding myself that I’m going slowly right now so that I can figure out ways to apply all of my skills in a more strategic, impactful, and joyful way.

Which brings me back to Phil Jackson and the world of sports. Earlier this year, as I went through a process of personal visioning, I put together a list of role models. One of those people was Jon Gruden, the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl at 41. He’s been out of coaching for the past four years, to the constant surprise of many pundits, given that he’s still young and in-demand and that he’s a self-proclaimed football junkie who has never had (nor wanted) a life outside of football. What I love about Gruden is that he’s found outside-the-box and probably even more impactful ways to stay close to the game.

I know what I’m passionate about, and I know what kind of life I want to live. I’m in that outside-the-box mode right now, which is occasionally a struggle, but which has been great overall. I think good things are going to come out of this whole process, although I am impatient to figure out what those things will be. I’ll just have to keep reminding myself: Slow the pace, stay in the race….

Collaborative Literacy

Take a moment, and think about the best collaborative experience you’ve ever had. It could be something that happened at work or a personal experience — organizing a family gathering, doing a shared activity with friends.

What would your life be like if all of your collaborative experiences were as good as that one?

Imagine a world in which everybody’s collaborative experiences were just one percent better, however you’d like to define that. What would that world look like?

My driving passion for the past 10 years has been to create that world. My contention has been that our overall collaborative literacy is depressingly low, and if we could boost that literacy even a little bit, it would result in drastic improvements in the world around us.

By “collaborative literacy,” I mean our fundamental abilities to collaborate with others. But what exactly does that mean? And how can we boost it?

As is often the case, I think sports offers a wonderful analogy. In honor of today’s NCAA Finals game, I’d like to draw some lessons on collaborative literacy from basketball. (If you’re not a sports fan, please bear with me. I’ll try to keep the jargon to a minimum, and I hope the analogy will still be useful.)

Basketball is one of those sports that’s hard to play casually unless you have some basic skills: dribbling and shooting. Both are hard to acquire, and dribbling is harder to learn than shooting. I spent hours as a kid practicing my dribbling, and I’m still below average at it. Lots of people can’t dribble without looking at the ball, including some pros.

When you play pick-up basketball, you meet people of all skill levels, but you rarely meet anyone who doesn’t have those baseline skills. And if they have those skills, that means they’ve put in some amount of time playing the game.

However, those are individual skills — necessary, but not sufficient. You also need to understand how to play the game at a team level. In other words, you need to have some baseline level of collaborative literacy. Casual followers of the game might think that collaborative literacy consists simply of passing the ball, but there’s a whole lot more. On offense, collaborative literacy consists of:

  • Passing
  • Moving without the ball
  • Setting screens (i.e. creating a wall with your body so that your teammate can get away from his or her defender)
  • Boxing out (i.e. again, using your body as a wall so that the opposing player can’t get a rebound)

On defense, collaborative literacy consists of:

  • Calling out screens (i.e. letting your teammate know that the opposing player is setting a screen, so that your teammate can move around it)
  • Double-teaming (i.e. helping a teammate defend an opposing player)
  • Rotating (i.e. covering for your teammate when an opposing player gets by him or her)

None of these skills are easily apparent, in the same way that the individual skills of shooting and dribbling are. However, they are all physically easier to acquire than the individual skills. Anyone can pick up a ball for the first time and pass the ball reasonably well. The same can’t be said for dribbling or shooting. Calling out screens requires the ability to yell. Most people are naturally very good at that. All the other group skills simply require moving your body, running to a spot. You don’t have to teach your body anything new.

What makes these skills hard is knowing what to do in the right moment. You can discuss the mechanics of these, and you can learn a lot by watching others, but in order to embody these skills, you have to practice them. And unlike the individual skills, you can’t  practice these collaborative skills by yourself.

To some extent, you can learn these skills by osmosis, but what I’ve discovered from years of playing pick-up is that people rarely do. You need to be conscious of these skills in order to practice them. I’ve played pick-up basketball with people who have played their whole lives and yet who never move without the ball or box out.

This holds true with collaborative literacy in all contexts. How many people do you know at work who have a basic literacy around giving and receiving effective feedback, for example? How long have they been doing business?

In order to learn how to collaborate more effectively, we need to be conscious of what collaborative literacy entails. But, even more critically, we need to have opportunities to practice those. I actually think there’s a ton of good information on the basic skills of collaborative literacy, but there are very few supporting structures for practicing these intentionally. Leadership development programs, for example, focus almost entirely on individual skill development, but they only marginally cover collaborative skill development, and they generally offer very few opportunities to actually practice them.

If we’re to achieve this vision of a world where all of our collaborative experiences are merely one percent better, we need to create more structures for developing collaborative literacy.

Photo by Wade Menard. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. As a relevant aside, I searched through hundreds of CC-licensed Flickr pictures seeking something that embodied team play. I didn’t find any. All of the pictures highlighted an individual skill.

The Mainstreaming of Analytics

John Hollinger, a long-time ESPN.com columnist and inventor of the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for evaluating basketball players, is joining the Memphis Grizzlies front office as its Vice President of Basketball Operations.

This is wacky on a number of levels. First, it represents the ongoing rise of the numbers geek in sports, a movement pioneered by Bill James almost 40 years ago, given an identity a decade ago in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, and gaining official acceptance in the NBA five years ago, when the Houston Rockets named Daryl Morey its General Manager. Want to run a professional sports team? These days, an MIT degree seems to give you a better chance than spending years in the business.

Second, Hollinger spent over a decade sharing his thinking and his tools for all to see. Now, all his competition needs to do to understand his thinking is to Google him. Tom Ziller writes:

The major difference between Hollinger and, say, Morey is that we all know Hollinger’s theories. We know his positions, and we’ve learned from his work…. Will his canon hurt his ability to make moves? We can lay out exactly which players he likes based on his public formulas and his writings. Other GMs will know which Memphis players he’ll sell low on. You can anticipate his draft choices if you’re picking behind him. If you’ve got a high-production, low-minutes undersized power forward, you know you can goose the price on him because history indicates that Hollinger values him quite seriously.

This is all a gross simplification: Hollinger’s oeuvre is filled with nuance. He doesn’t rank players solely by PER, and in fact he probably has some adjustments to his myriad metrics up his sleeve. He’s not going to be nearly as predictable as a decision-maker as anyone would be as a writer. The stakes are different, the realities of action are different. But no decision-maker in the NBA has had this much of their brain exposed to the world. Morey isn’t shy, but that big Michael Lewis spread on Shane Battier was as far as we ever got into the GM’s gears. Zarren is notoriously careful about what he says. He might be the only GM or assistant GM in the league more secretive than Petrie.

It’s interesting to consider the implications on the Big Data movement in business (on which Moneyball had a much greater influence than most would probably admit). Business is not a zero sum game like professional sports, so there’s more room for nuance and many positive examples of openness and transparency. Still, for all those who believe that openness and competition do not have to be at odds with each other, this will be fascinating to watch.

Ziller also makes a wonderful point about the importance of communicating meaning from analysis:

In the end, what Hollinger’s hire means is that the ability to do the hard analysis is important, but so is translating that to a language the people on the court can understand. That’s always been a wonderful Hollinger strength: making quant analysis accessible without dumbing it down. Even someone as brilliant as Morey, who has a team of quants, can’t always achieve that.

I’m reminded of a tale from Rick Adelman’s days in Houston. Morey’s team would deliver lengthy scouting reports to the team and coaching staff well before a game. It’d have player tendencies, shooting charts, instructions on match-up advantages — everything you could ask for to prep for a game. And out of all of the coaches and all of the players only two — Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes — would devour the reports. The rest (Adelman included) would leaf through, pretend to care and go play ball. That story might be an exaggeration on the part of the person who told it, but even if that’s the case, it shows how important accessibility is. You can build the world’s greatest performance model. And if you can’t explain what it means to the people using it, it’s worthless.

Technique, Practice, and Craft

Last week, Sports Illustrated published an article about Georgetown’s basketball program and its coach, John Thompson III. Georgetown has a long tradition of producing skilled big men, starting with Thompson’s father in the 1970s and 1980s. And while Thompson has continued that tradition, he’s gained a reputation for something different:

Much has been made about the Princeton-style offense that Georgetown runs under Thompson, about how difficult it is to defend and prepare for. But what is unique about Georgetown’s system has little to do with anything that is written in a playbook. Everything the Hoyas do offensively is based on reading the defense and reacting to those reads. Most systems involve a player being told something along the lines of: cut here, run off of that screen there, set a pick for him and roll to the basket, lather, rinse, repeat.

Georgetown’s theory is different.

Thompson doesn’t tell his team what to do on any given play. He doesn’t give them specific instructions, rather he teaches them, from the day they set foot on campus, how to make that decision for themselves based off of what they see on the floor in front of them. In his words, “the ability to just be a basketball player is something that we stress. Don’t be a position.”

And that is the most difficult point to get across.

“A lot of freshmen want to be told specifically what to do,” he said. “The difficult part becomes understanding that they have to make the read, because they’re so used to being told where to run in the play next.

“It’s new for most players to have to make reads and have to make decisions based on how they’re being played and how the defense is set. But once you grasp that way of thinking, I think it is very simple.”

I’ve loved basketball my whole life, but I’ve never played it competitively. So I’m intrigued by what this actually means in practice. I totally agree with it in theory. However, before you can learn how to make your own decisions, sometimes you have to learn things by rote.

I recently heard chef extraordinaire Jacques Pepin on the radio talking about cooking, and he gave a wonderful definition of technique:

For me, technique is very important. Technique is really a repetition, repetition, endless repetition of a certain movement, whether you use a knife or whatever, so it becomes so engrained, so part of yourself that you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.

You learn a certain movement, a certain reaction over and over and over again until, as Pepin said, “you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.” That, to me, is the essence of craft, whether it’s sports, cooking, or my own craft of collaboration. Learning certain things by rote ultimately gives you the freedom to express yourself.

After a recent playoff game, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers had this to say about his point guard, Rajon Rondo:

“He’s got to be in attack,” Rivers said. “I thought the second quarter he was attacking and attacking. I thought he was reading a lot instead of playing on instincts. I think sometimes his IQ hurts him at times. He’s trying to read the defense, but you can’t read and play with speed at the same time.

“We go through it a lot — at least Rondo and I — about, ‘Rondo, just trust your instincts. Your speed has to be part of it. Your instincts will take over. You’ll make the right decision.'”

Doing any craft well is all about trusting your instincts. You get those instincts by doing your thinking in practice rather than in the moment.