The virtues of getting your butt kicked: Barack Obama’s basketball game

Michael Lewis covers a lot of ground in his October Vanity Fair profile of Barack Obama, from Congressional gridlock to nuclear reactor meltdowns to a downed F-15 over Libya. But the heart of Lewis’ piece is the President’s regular basketball game. The other guys on the court – everyone but Obama – are former college players. They’re tall and fast. Most are twenty years younger than Obama.

As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.

“No one seems to be taking it easy on him,” I said.

“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back,” he explained.

It turns out that Obama, despite his age and his lack of competitive college (or even high school) hoops experience, is good enough to be useful to his team, passing well and playing smart.

But what’s really remarkable to me is the game itself. This is a guy, as Lewis puts it, who could “find a perfectly respectable game with his equals in which he could shoot and score and star.” Instead, Obama seeks out this “ridiculously challenging” game. He goes out of his way to surround himself with people he knows can outplay, out-hustle, and out-muscle him. The president is extremely competitive, and he plays to win, but he also wants to be pushed and stretched and challenged.

A players hire A+ players, as the saying goes, and B players hire C players.

And people who consistently exercise great leadership know that you only get better when you stretch and take risks, and that building great teams is as much about surrounding yourself with people who are really good at what they do – even better than you – as it is about whatever talent and drive you might bring to the table.

(White House photo via Creative Commons)

Jacob Smith is the co-author of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, the former mayor of Golden, Colorado, and a nonprofit consultant.

Leave a Reply