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.

Leadership Lessons from Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly

Notre Dame has a proud football tradition, but for the past two decades, it’s been a tradition of futility. It last won a national championship in 1988, and it hasn’t been in the running for one since Lou Holtz retired. That finally changed this year under coach Brian Kelly, as Notre Dame will be duking it out against Alabama next week for the title.

Kelly had two mediocre years before turning things around this year. ESPN.com had a nice article about what led to the turnaround. One of his problems was that he was not spending enough time communicating with his players, building trust. After a bad loss to USC late last year, he challenged his players, but they did not react well. He took responsibility for that.

“They didn’t know me well enough,” Kelly said. “Not their fault. My fault. You’d want a response to my comments [like], ‘That’s Coach. He has high expectations. He’s demanding this.’ No, it was the other way. ‘Coach doesn’t trust us. He didn’t recruit us.’ That made it clear to me I was not doing a very good job with our players.”

He decided he needed to spend more time with his players, so he made a number of changes this past year to create that time.

Last winter, when he might have been driving to Chicago or Detroit for an alumni meeting, he held Monday meetings with his team. No assistant coaches, no support staff, just a head coach and his players.

“It kind of gave us a chance to get to know him a little better, and for him to get to know us,” offensive tackle Zack Martin said. “[Before the meetings,] I don’t think it was something that I thought, ‘Oh, I wish I had this.’ After he started it, people realized: Oh yeah, it’s nice to get to know your head coach on a more personal level, not just on the football field.”

Kelly no longer works his quarterbacks the way a position coach would. His assistants sing from the hymnal he wrote. It is a slight exaggeration to say that this is the first season in which Kelly didn’t need name tags for the guys on defense.

“He’s there as a more familiar face,” safety Zeke Motta said. “It’s great for the team because you not only have one focus but you have a focus on the entire team itself. That lends itself to a team that plays together and plays for each other.”

Kelly hops from meeting to meeting, drill to drill, watching, listening, reinforcing.

“I could be the guy who wasn’t jumping on them because they didn’t run the route the right way,” Kelly said. “I could be the guy who said, ‘Hey, look, if you step with your outside foot on that. That’s what Coach is trying to tell you.'”

It’s a new way of coaching for Kelly.

People Matter

I spent the day processing everything that’s been happening over the past week, work-wise:

  • I spent two days at the Network of Network Funders meeting, thinking with and listening to a group of funders who are trying to apply network-thinking in the nonprofit space
  • I also spent a lot of time on my primary project these days, helping a Fortune 500 company understand how it can improve how it collaborates at a global scale

Here’s the irony:

  • The funders are thinking in terms of networks, but they’re struggling to let go of a more traditional organizational mindset
  • Meanwhile, the CIO of this company (the sponsor of our work) is thinking in terms of his organization, but his mindset and actions are all “post-organizational.” He has a very network-oriented approach in how he’s leading his organization, but he’s not mired in the language and complexity of networks

I’m working with Kristin Cobble on this project, and she had a similar take on our client, but entirely different language. She described him as “an organization learning consultant’s dream client.”

We discussed how we came to a similar conclusion through our different lenses and language. And what we decided was this: Call it whatever you want — organizational learning, networks, whatever. At the end of the day, it all boils down to the same thing: People and practice.

Grady McGonagill and I have an ongoing argument about paradigms. He thinks that the way the world is now — rapid, technology-induced change and an exponential rise in complexity — requires a new paradigm of leadership. It makes sense on the surface, but I disagree. I think the old paradigms of leadership are fine. We just need to be more intentional in practicing them.

This, to me, is the timeless paradigm in which we now — and have always — lived:

  • Trust matters
  • Relationships matter
  • Communication matters
  • Reciprocity matters
  • Space matters
  • Learning matters
  • Practice matters — way, way more than process
  • Feeling alive matters

If we just stripped away our tools and processes and frameworks and crazy language and simply focused on practicing everything on this list, the world would be a much better place.

The Networked Nonprofit Board

I’ve served on the board of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) for four years now, and I recently became the board chair. The thing I love most about LLC is how it models its principles. It doesn’t just talk about how leadership should be. It practices it, and it shares its learnings, both good and bad.

Deborah Meehan, LLC’s founder and Executive Director, recently wrote a blog post about our most recent board meeting, where we spent an afternoon thinking about what it would mean to the board if LLC were a more networked nonprofit.

Of course, simply talking about the idea among ourselves would have been interesting, but not as gratifying. Instead, we modeled the idea by inviting guests to think with us. (Beth Kanter, one of our guests, reposted Deborah’s post on her blog.) Even though I and other board members (notably Grady McGonagill) spend a lot of time thinking about networks, the truth is that the LLC staff deserves all the credit for moving us forward in this way.

At the end of her post, Deborah tells an anecdote about me, which I’ve heard her share often:

Two years ago, when we extended an invitation to our community to join the design team for our national meeting over 20 people responded and our board chair, Eugene Eric Kim, had the radical idea about selecting the team, take everyone! Well, that would be an interesting approach to board recruitment wouldn’t it?

She always refers to this idea as “radical,” which always amuses me. What was so radical about it? Organizing a national meeting is super hard, so why would you turn down help? The more the merrier, right?

Those who answer “no” are generally designing for the worst case scenario. If your group is too large, you might get sidetracked. You don’t want to accept a bad seed. Etc.

These are all valid concerns, but designing for the best case scenario is equally valid. You can do more work with more hands. The larger the group, the more likely you are to attract a diamond in the rough. Etc.

I prefer to design for the best case scenario, but I’m no pollyanna. I’ve seen processes get hijacked, even by people with the best of intentions. If you’re going to design for the best case scenario, you want favorable conditions. In my experience, you want the following:

  • Crystal clear goals
  • A strong core group of committed, facilitative individuals
  • A strong network with shared language

If you have these three things, you should be designing for the best case scenario, not the worst. In the case of the Creating Space conference two years ago, we had all three:

  • People knew exactly what the conference was about and what organizing it would entail. It was the ninth time LLC was organizing this conference, so there was plenty of experience
  • The LLC staff was fully committed, and it had hired one of the best facilitators in the business, Odin Zackman (who also attended our board discussion on networks). There were also a few committed, experienced volunteers we knew we could count on, regardless of who else ended up volunteering
  • As its name suggests, LLC’s biggest asset is its diverse community, which is full of brilliant people who are strongly aligned around its values and who have fostered strong relationships and shared language with each other over the years

Like I said, given these circumstances, the idea of accepting everyone who wanted to participate didn’t seem too radical to me.

How can we apply this thinking to boards on a networked nonprofit?

There are obvious places where this applies, and there are places where it’s extremely challenging. The obvious possibilities center around leveraging domain expertise. For example, nonprofits often choose board members who bring specialized knowledge in certain areas, such as finance, fundraising, or technology. In this capacity, board members are acting as advisors, but also network weavers — people who connect the organization to their networks. There’s no reason why you couldn’t open up this role to anyone in the network who was willing to play it.

The biggest challenge centers around governance. Nonprofit boards typically have fiduciary and oversight responsibility. How would you handle this in a more networked way? Network-oriented organizations (membership networks, for example) generally approach this by making some number of their board seats elected positions.

I think a more radical shift is possible. Jack Ricchiuto’s essay on going beyond consensus beautifully describes how to move from planning to activation. I believe there’s a model that builds on this thinking, delegating as much as possible to small groups, with the board acting as weavers.

That all sounds well and good, but the devil is in the details. I don’t know what that model looks like, and I realize that there are some huge obstacles, including some legal ones, that make this very challenging.

Technically, as Deborah notes in her post, LLC does not have this problem. It’s a project of the Tides Center, which means that our board is technically an advisory board, even though we operate as an oversight board. This gives us a bit more leeway to play.

And play we will! At the end of the day, we won’t get to the answer by sitting in a room and thinking really hard. We’ll get there by staying clear about the overall goal, taking small, concrete steps, and repeating the cycle, failing early and often.