Learn from Ndamukong Suh’s Bad Attitude

“Yeah, we’re loaded,” the player said, exhaling after Detroit (4-8) lost its fourth consecutive game and third by four points or less. “But we have a couple of guys who don’t understand what it takes to win. Just making a couple of plays and thinking that makes you great … sometimes you want to just shake some of these guys and say, ‘Don’t you get it?'”

Anybody in particular?

“Ndamukong [Suh] would be first.”

More here.

Ever made a good point in a meeting? Answered a tough question in class? What did you do for the next few minutes? Sat around replaying your brilliance in your own mind is what, probably.

It’s common to view team situations as status competitions. Forget the goal for a sec, do they think I’m smart? Aren’t I the best looking person here? That joke I just made got a laugh, I bet everyone is thinking of how funny I am.

This focus on minutiae of individual interaction is incredibly destructive from a teamwork standpoint. It interrupts the most important characteristic of high performance: achieving ‘flow’. Flow is the mental state of perfect focus on the task at hand.

A lot of this has to do with how you define success. When am I allowed to gloat a bit, even privately? Selfishness notwithstanding, this can be a difficult thing to figure out. Here is a quote paraphrasing one of my favorite books in the world, The Mental ABCs of Pitching, I think about all the time:

Dorfman once approached Greg Maddux after a game and asked him how it went. Maddux said simply: “Fifty out of 73.” He’d thrown 73 pitches and executed 50. Nothing else was relevant.

We don’t know whether the Braves won that game. We don’t know how many strikeouts Maddux got or how many home runs were scored on him. There’s a beautiful purity to this evaluation: it strips away everything that Maddux doesn’t control. And Maddux doesn’t celebrate after a single well-thrown ball, like Suh is accused of doing. It is through the aggregation of successful execution that he succeeds.

But this also shows me that Greg Maddux isn’t a leader. A leader takes it upon himself to tackle, in addition to his own extremely difficult job, the hardest problem of all: collective performance.

Training, motivation, culture. Leadership is a separate skill, perhaps independent from individual performance. That’s why we have coaches and managers who can specialize in it.

But stars, like Greg Maddux and like Ndamukong Suh, have a special power: their individual achievements grant them very high status. Status that draws people to them, that grants them influence over others. High status makes leadership easier, probably, but still devilishly hard.

And for some, the gift of influence comes with an obligation to use it. This is the frustration from teammates who see the potential in Suh. And lament its waste.

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