Addition by Subtraction
I’m a fairly avid football fan. I watch primarily because I enjoy the game, but given my career as a stock trader / short-seller, I also follow it from a managerial or organizational standpoint. And while at first it might seem odd to try to learn about organizations by following professional sports, when one thinks about modern culture, it’s much less so. For nowadays, sports are perhaps the only field in which achievement is sought and praised openly and unconditionally. (We admire good teams without seeking to handicap them, denigrate their winning players, nor pit antitrust lawyers against their owners.) Thus, sports is a venue where one can unambiguously see the results of policies aimed at success. Those principles can be then used to inform our (egoistic) analysis of, and approach to, other fields.
Recently I’ve been reflecting on how the perennial top teams in football, notably the Colts and Patriots (and soon, I think the Saints and Chiefs), prioritize character and attitude over raw talent. And it’s not just a bromide, they can routinely be observed passing over talented but troublesome players. By contrast, perennially losing teams, e.g. the Raiders and Bengals, seem to go out of their way to select talented but corrosive, lazy, prima donna players. The results speak for themselves.
I think there are many factors at play here. But perhaps the least appreciated is how “coachable” an athlete is. Many college stars are used to riding their talent alone, and thus resent and resist any feedback or criticism. (In a more general organizational context the equivalent might be the pompous know-it-all.) Their unwillingness to learn or take coaching not only stultifies their own development, it also sets a terrible example for the rest of the team, many of whose players are less naturally talented than the would-be stars.
Similar points can be made about players who won’t put in the effort at practice, or who are so demanding of attention and special treatment that they not only cause the team to lose focus, but also eliminate any possibility of an organizational pursuit of excellence. As much as the absolute best people will be self-starters and dedicated no matter how others in the organization behave, there’s no doubt that almost everyone else, at least to some degree, will come to resent the behavior and treatment of malcontents, which results in a certain contempt for the organization that condones it. This affects the players’ motivation and willingness to do their very best at all times.
For these reasons among others, the overall effect of players with bad characters is corrosively negative. Teams that understand this avoid such players from the outset, and if one sneaks in, take no time to get rid of him.
However, since this in not the majority view, reporters often question the decision to pass over or let go such players. A coach like Bill Belichick, who is very clear and confident in his principles — and hence very sure of his decisions — can serenely and simply respond to such questions: “we’re taking the steps that give us the best chance to win”.
As confirmation of the wider applicability of these observations, a close friend of mine, who is a senior vice-president of a successful firm, emphasizes to me how much corporate culture and employee attitudes matter to his firm. When they find employees — no matter how skilled — who detract from the workplace, the decision to let them go is easy because they now truly understand the value of character to culture, and of culture to achievement. Indeed, it’s a policy they hold to no matter how short-handed they might be.
Of course all of this is not to say that talent doesn’t matter — it certainly does. If and when you find an extremely talented individual with the right character and work ethic, you build a whole team around him (e.g. Peyton Manning, or in basketball, Michael Jordan). But notice that such players are not only highly coachable and demanding of themselves; by their attitude, example, and expectations of other players, they make everyone around them better. In other words, in every respect (except talent) they’re the opposite of the uncoachable, prima donnas.