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.

Extraordinary Teams

Inc. published a nice blog post yesterday on the “7 Habits of Extraordinary Teams.” It’s an obvious play on Stephen Covy’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” (both of which are worthwhile reads, by the way).

One thing I like about the post: the predictable but still critically important emphasis on the ways in which strong teams collaborate and support each other. It seems pretty obvious, but in the absence of real trust and effective communication among team members, it’s pretty tough for a group of folks to gel (and consequently kick ass).

I do have some quibbles with his list. For instance, while I agree that clear goals are critical I’m not convinced that those goals must necessarily be quantifiable. Similarly, while clear roles are really important, part of what elevates teams from mediocre or even good up to greatness is an enthusiasm for stepping up wherever the needs might lie. Yes, it’s critical that each individual know her role, but that has to be coupled with an ownership – by every individual – over the entire team effort and a willingness to fill in whatever holes and to grab whatever opportunities present themselves.

Those are just quibbles, in any case. However obvious the list may seem, dysfunctional teams are at least as common as the strong ones, so there’s clearly a lot of work to do (obvious or not).

Photo by Flickr user dearbarbie.

Watching the Game Film (for Nonprofits)

This post was originally published on Amy Sample Ward’s terrific nonprofit technology blog earlier this week.

For professional football players, the six days between games are jammed with practice, gym workouts, and travel. They also include time spent watching the film from the previous game, play by play, evaluating, learning, and preparing for the next game. I don’t know as much about other sports, but I’m guessing that professional basketball, hockey, baseball and other players have similar routines during their seasons.

It’s true that for pro athletes, everything they do during the week amounts to preparation for game day. Game day performance is what matters. It’s also true that many pro athletes are supported by extensive coaching staffs, sophisticated video recordings, and powerful analytic tools to help them understand what they did and how they might improve.

But a lot of what nonprofit folks do is similarly performance-oriented: every time you present on a panel at a conference, every time you pitch a prospective donor or funder, every time you talk to a reporter. You prepare (or not), and then you perform well (or not). And even without the same kind of evaluation and training resources at our disposal, we still have tools and capacity to carefully evaluate our performance and plug it in to fast-cycle feedback loops so we can continuously improve. Nearly every nonprofit has a video camera now, tripods are cheap, and it’s easy to set up to record right before you begin your presentation. When you talk with reporters, it’s easy to evaluate the print story or broadcast (not just reviewing it, which everyone already does, but studying it to figure out what you did well and what your screwed up). You may not have someone with you on every funder pitch, but it’s not hard to arrange at least some of those conversations with a colleague who won’t do too much talking during the meeting, so someone else can pay more attention to how well you do. For much of what you do, you can figure out ways to intentionally review your performance, identify what you did well and what you need to work on, and then craft a strategy for improving.

Incidentally, it’s the coaches who really immerse themselves in the film after every game, studying the game film on the flight home or first thing Monday morning, grading every player on every play, and then reviewing the films with the players. What if the more senior folks in your organization were explicitly responsible for coaching the newer members of the team? And what if their job evaluation was based partly on how effectively they are at coaching the more junior folks?

An organizational culture that emphasizes evaluation, feedback loops, learning, and intention improvement doesn’t happen by accident. For most nonprofit folks, the limitation isn’t about resources but about how serious they are about improving.

(Photo credit: Flickr rburtzel)