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.

Beating the Dead Horse of Collaboration: Thinking Versus Doing

My post on the dangers of professionalizing collaboration spurred some good thoughts from Chris Dent, which resulted in some good discussion over IM. Chris wrote:    (KP6)

What one does when collaborating is always more important than collaboration itself.    (KP7)

In the ideal situation, collaboration disappears into the background. If you find yourself enmeshed in the details of how your group should interact, you’ve missed a step.    (KP8)

This is so true, it bears emphasizing. Think about dancing. What could be more collaborative? If you’re thinking about your footwork or your next move as you dance, you are almost certainly not dancing well. On the other hand, how do you become a good dancer without thinking about footwork? More importantly, how do you improve if you’re not self-reflective? Obviously, actually doing it is crucial — and in the end, it’s the most important thing — but there’s still room for self-reflection and discussion. What’s the right balance?    (KP9)

The key is a cycle of reflection and action. You think and you talk, but when it comes to action, you forget all of that, and you simply do. All of that thinking, regardless of how good or how deep it is, is useless if it hasn’t been internalized, if it’s not actionable. If it has been internalized, then thinking or talking about it is not only unnecessary, it just gets in the way.    (KPA)

Chris’s point reminded me of something: People’s best experiences with collaboration often occurs when there’s a sense of urgency. Collaboration following disasters is a great example of this. A big reason for this is that people don’t have the luxury of overthinking a problem, and so if collaboration is good, nothing artificial gets in the way.    (KPB)

In my essay, “Everything Is Known: Discovering Patterns of Emergent Collaboration,” I talk a lot about William Langewiesche‘s book, American Ground and the emergent collaboration that occurred after 9/11. I didn’t get to talk in detail about what happened after the bulk of the recovery effort was complete, although I alluded to it in a previous blog entry. Langewiesche writes:    (KPC)

Safety restrictions were increasing by the day. Ken Holden was philosophical about it, and, as his father might have years before, he played a little word game — something like metaphor-cramming. He said, “When the smoke clears, the nitpickers come out of the closet.” And it was true: the regulators and auditors had arrived in force. Those from the federal safety agency called OSHA were most in evidence; they had been present from the start, and had been largely ignored, but were suddenly multiplying now and gaining the upper hand. They wore bright safety vests and had helmets equipped with red flashing lights. One afternoon, with about a dozen of them in sight, their lights blinking in the hole, Pablo Lopez said to me, “Look! The Martians have landed and they’re communicating!” A few days later one of them asked me to don safety glasses or leave the excavation site, and I remember my surprise when I realized that he was serious. It felt sort of silly, like being required to wear sunblock in a combat zone, but the truth was that the battle was over, and the hole had become a tame place. Lopez’s partner Andrew Pontecorvo explained it to me as a fact of life that he had observed before. He said, “The safer things get, the greater the restrictions.” He was a realist. He shrugged. (198-199)    (KPD)

How do we avoid this trap? One key is to build a frequent, regular cycle of intense collaboration followed by reflection into your design. You can’t do both at the same time, but you don’t want to do one without the other for too long. Deadlines are a pattern that facilitates this behavior.    (KPE)

If your team or community is aware of this cycle, then if someone’s self-reflection is preventing work from happening, you can call him or her on it. Chris suggested having a Horse Is Dead stick, similar in concept to a talking stick. I’m not sure exactly what you would do with the stick yet — beating the person over the head with it sounds right, but this may not go over well with management — but I think he’s on the right track.    (KPF)

If the reason for collaborating is more important than the collaboration itself, then what are the implications for metrics? Do you measure collaboration at all, or do you measure whether or not you’re achieving your mission? The example I often use for this are the 2000-2003 Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal Lakers. No one would point to those teams as models of effective collaboration, but who cares? They won three consecutive championships. Which metric is more important? Well, they may have won three, but they should have won four, and they had to break up the team because they couldn’t get along. The point is that you can’t measure one in isolation from another. You need to measure both, and consider one in the context of the other.    (KPG)