Over Leading

The hockey season is almost upon us. For me this is good news since I am not so much of a baseball or football fan. I am aware of how the baseball playoffs are shaping up and how the football season has opened for the various teams, but I know who has been injured, signed, traded and is skating for my favorite hockey team, and their competition. I am not so sure that this is a good indication of the kind of person I am.

This fact in and of itself doesn’t really mean very much. Probably most everyone has a favorite team or sport. It’s just that not everyone’s favorite team and sport are as cool as hockey with its speed, creativity, physicality and game flow. But I am digressing a little here.

Being a hockey nerd means that I read a lot of articles not just about my favorite hockey team specifically, but about the sport in general. When you are the most popular sport in the world, except for football (both professional and college), basketball (both professional and college), baseball and soccer, sometimes it is hard to find the sport’s coverage in the media. It’s usually right next to the fencing, lacrosse and jai alai coverage. Believe it or not there was a global hockey tournament in progress for the last couple of weeks. The best players in the game were playing for their respective countries in the World Cup of Hockey.

When football does this (that’s “soccer” for those of us in North America) and holds its “World Cup”, entire nations have been known to stop, declare a national work holiday so that people can watch their team’s games.

You haven’t heard of it or seen it on television? I think that’s probably because it may only have been broadcast on something called “The Hockey Network” (or some such thing) and most cable suppliers don’t supply channels that require four (or more) digits on the set top box to access. The satellite providers asked NASA for the extra capability at the very far end of the broadcast spectrum to supply it, but were denied because they didn’t want the broadcasts to interfere with the wireless garage door openers. You get the idea. It’s not what you might call a high demand channel.

Since it was so difficult to follow on television I ended up reading an article about the state of the tournament specifically and the state of hockey in general, and as is usually the case it got me thinking. The article pointed out that the general state of hockey was pretty good but that the coaches were affecting the direction of hockey in that they seemed intent on implementing systems where no individual players were able to fully utilize their talents and capabilities. They had been coached into a defensive hockey process where the team system was designed to keep the other team from scoring and superseded the ability of the individual players to fully utilize all of their skills and capabilities to score.

Now wait a minute. We have a team sport where the coaches are limiting the ability of superstars to dominate a game in favor of a process oriented team based system that they feel gives their respective teams a greater probability of success, i.e. winning the game. Isn’t that the goal (pardon the hockey pun. If it had been a soccer pun it would have been “Isn’t that the Gooooaaaallllll”), to win? What could be wrong with that?

The article in question addressed the issue from the player’s point of view with the idea being where would the next Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr come from. They were transcendent scoring talents that defied systems and defined their positions. Would they have been able to become such dominant forces in the game if they had been limited by the systems and processes of today?

The general consensus was that by implementing processes and systems into hockey, coaches had reduced the ability of individuals to excel (and score ala Gretzky, Orr, and others) and as such had reduced the attraction and beauty of the game. They were in essence trying to remove the creativity and risk from the game.

For me the topic of interest was the other side of the same coin; more along the lines of that by increasing the focus and dependence on a specific leader (the coach) and the reliance on the process or system that they implemented and not so much on the talents, creativity and capabilities of the members of the team, the possibility of failure (being scored on) may have been limited, but the opportunity for greater success (or scoring) was also greatly reduced.

In sports, as in business, talent wins. Processes and systems are something that should be used in order to enable the team’s talent to flourish, not limit their opportunities to create successes. When a leader or the systems and processes they implement become more important than the actual talent levels and individual performance of the team members, then the upside performance potential is being sacrificed in favor of avoiding any potential downside result of the risk.

It seems that in hockey, as it is with business, that the shift in focus from fully utilizing the talents of the team members to score, to only applying those talents as they fit into the process or system that the leader (in this case the coach) has implemented has been recognized as an issue. The fact that someone wrote about this phenomenon as it relates to hockey was interesting to me.

It seems to me that this phenomenon is also occurring in other sports, as well as in business in general is also interesting. By implementing systems and processes that limit the risk and are defensive in nature we seem to be limiting our abilities to make progress and “score”. We probably make fewer mistakes, but we probably also stifle our teams creativity in the process.

So what is the balance point?

There is no question that leadership is important. At the risk of sounding somewhat trite, each leader’s method of leadership is a unique mix of their specific traits and capabilities. There is a question as to if a leader would have become the leader we know if they had been products of a business process or system. Would Steven Jobs or Bill Gates have been able to create the business juggernauts that they did if they had been forced to operate within the systems of their predecessors?

To illustrate this point with these two individuals even further, since these individuals have left their roles in their respective organizations have those organizations continued to creatively prosper as they did in the past?

Tim Cook has done an admirable job at Apple since taking the CEO role in 2011. It is extremely difficult to follow a legend.

Just ask the hockey player that followed Gretzky in Edmonton when he left for Los Angeles. I don’t think anyone even remembers that player’s name.

Apple has continued to perform and perform well, but the consensus is that they have not really generated the new technology and products that they did under Jobs, and that have come to define them. It seems that they are trying to maintain and defend their current position via trying to extend the current systems and processes with new iterations of existing products. As an illustration, the iPhone 7 has recently been announced. Even the Apple Watch has been credited to Jobs as his idea.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella is a little harder to discuss for a couple reasons. First, he was not the immediate replacement for Bill Gates. Steve Ballmer was. Second, he has only been in charge since 2014, so he may not have had the time to actually put his fingerprints on the company yet. However since the same 2011 time frame as Tim Cook, Microsoft has acquired Skype Technologies for networking applications (a step outside of Microsoft’s then core capabilities), entered the Personal Computer equipment market with the Microsoft Surface computer (another step outside their core) and most recently tendered a $26.2 Billion offer to buy the business networking site LinkedIn.

Now Microsoft has not scored on every one of their forays. Their move to enter the smart phone market in 2014 cost them $7.2 Billion, which they ended up have to write off completely as a loss. They are still in the market but I don’t think this is what they had in mind. You obviously win some and lose some.

Of the two companies it would appear that Microsoft has recognized that new leaders must be given the reins and allowed to take chances and put their talents, opportunities, and potential failures fully on display. I guess that only time will tell which system and process will turn out to be the most successful one.

I think I am more of a fan of “event” hockey where the final score is five to four as opposed to system hockey where the final score may be one to nothing or two to one. These guys for the most part are pretty talented athletes. (Hockey has evolved from the days of the designated “fighters”. With the speed and way the game is now played there really is no room for those “enforcers” any more. I think it a better game because of it as well.)

I think I am also a fan of event business as well. Cool products such as iPhones, iPads, and Surface Tablets came with the inherent risk of failure. Playing to win is always much more fun than playing not to lose. Especially in business. I think that the business processes and systems should enable the business (or sports) team to utilize its talent and take the intelligent risks associated taking the next leap forward, not limit them to just the smaller incremental steps associated with the last advancement.


It has been a somewhat interesting week. Many items have caught my attention and seemed as though they would be good topics to write about. I may save a few of these ideas for later articles. Some of them are probably better left out or forgotten. I don’t mind wandering off into some potentially arcane or hard to relate to business topics occasionally, but I don’t want to generate just another rant about this topic or that one and then try to relate it to business.

What I thought that was interesting today was the idea of instinct. I think we all have a basic idea of what instinct is, but since I am eventually going to relate it to business I think I may want to start out at a reasonable baseline. May favorite way of doing that is to go out to Merriam-Webster and retrieve the following “simple” definition of instinct:

“Something you know without learning it or thinking about it”.

Okay, a couple things here. First, when did Merriam-Webster start providing a “simple definition”? Really? Have we actually come to the point where we are abridging our definitions into the simplest of vernacular? I couldn’t make this up. There is now a “simple” and a “full” definition. I fear for where our society is going at this point, but I promised not to propeller off into some sort of a rant.

Second, I think I’ll go with the “full” definition, because I guess I am just that kind of person:

“A natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity”

Either way, I think you get my point. We have all met people in business that just seem to know what to do and when to do it. They make good business decisions. They can extrapolate limited data and input it into very good solutions. They make smart choices. They are said to have good instincts. But do they really?

We usually hear of “good instincts” as it applies to athletes. It seems to be some sort of method for describing why an athlete who is not biggest, fastest or most imposing physical specimen is so good at what they do.

I have mentioned in the past that I have become something of a hockey fan. Even I find this rather interesting since I grew up in the desert southwest and currently live in Texas, which as we all know is not considered a hotbed of hockey fandom. Go figure.

With that in mind, the best example of this good instincts phenomenon that I can think of is the hockey player Wayne Gretzky. The leading scorer in the history of the National Hockey League. The man who’s nick-named “The Great One”. The measuring stick for all other great hockey players.

He was not particularly big as hockey players go. He was not the fastest skater, nor did he have the hardest shot. He just scored, a lot. When he was asked how he did it, he said he didn’t go to where the puck was, but where he thought the puck would be. Based on his success it looks like he had great instincts.

Or did he? I’ll get back to this a little later as well.

Let’s fast forward to the opening day of the National Football league and the first game of the season for the Dallas Cowboys. I am not a particular Dallas Cowboys fan. That person in our house would be my wife. I am however wise enough to sit on the couch quietly while she cheers her team on. I guess it is our version of “together” time.

The game in question was a see-saw affair and was reasonably exciting. It was coming down to the last few seconds when a field goal could steal a victory for Dallas. With no time outs and just a handful of seconds left on the clock a pass was thrown to the Dallas receiver on the sidelines. All he needed to do was step out of bounds and stop the clock.

But this is where his instincts kicked in.

Instead of stepping out of bounds and stopping the clock, which in this instance was the most limited resource in the situation, the receiver turned and tried to run up field and gain a few more yards. I don’t blame him (my wife does however) because every receiver’s instinct is to maximize the gain on each individual play. Needless to say he was tackled in bounds, time ran out and Dallas lost.

It is apparent that in this instance his instincts were wrong.

Time was in fact the most importance aspect of the situation. He needed to understand that and adjust his behavior appropriately. He needed to think about where he was and the situation he, and the team were in and act accordingly.

This is easy enough to say when you are sitting on a couch next to someone who is cheering wildly, and not down on the field actually competing.

Now let’s go back to Wayne Gretzky. He gave us the definition of his “instinct”. He thought about where the puck was going to be and went there to meet it. Was the puck there every time he went to where he thought it would be? No. But he was right enough to become the leading scorer in the history of professional hockey.

The point here is that as he said, he “thought” about it. It was not instinct as we currently like and want to define it. He was able to process the game situation, formulate a plan and implement it in such a way as to be in the right place at the right time in order to score. He did not just skate around waiting for people to pass him the puck. He was always aware of the situation and adjusted accordingly.

It seems to me that Gretzky’s “instinct” was more related to the way he saw and thought about the game as he played it. He was able to process the various locations and movements on the ice and anticipate where he thought the puck would be. Then he would go there. Since hockey is a game of split second decisions as I said he wasn’t right all the time, but he was right more often than anyone else.

Now let’s talk about business. Businesses love predictability. When things are predictable, just about anyone can anticipate what is going to happen.

In hockey this would be the equivalent of everyone knowing where the puck was going with the result that all of the players would be clustered around Gretzky waiting for the puck.

But in business, like hockey, not everything is predictable. Most everyone thinks in different ways and reacts differently to different inputs. For every Wayne Gretzky or Steve Jobs, there are a number of different elite players or leaders in the game. After all, someone else had to pass Gretzky the puck in order for him to score.

I think “instinct” whether in sports or in business is not some unseen or unconscious force associated with performance, but rather the ability to process and make connections between multiple inputs and variables that result in good decisions. It is the ability to think, sometimes faster than your competition, and most times more accurately than your competition.

Knowing where to go to meet the puck, or when to get out of bounds instead of turning and running up field, or when to invest in a new product or technology comes from understanding the multiple inputs associated with each situation, thinking through the alternatives, selecting and acting upon the best one.

As I said, Gretzky did it a lot. Jobs seemed to do it more often than not. We all remember the iPod, Mac and iPad. Does anyone remember NeXT computer or the Apple Lisa? Just asking. I am sure the Dallas receiver has made many more good game play decisions than bad ones. It’s just that his last bad one had such an immediate and visible result.

Not everyone makes the right decision every time. Instincts or not, business is very much like every other game out there: How quickly can you get to the right decision. How people think and process information obviously has a great deal to do with the decisions that they make. Different situations call for different types of thinking and decisions.

I think it is our natural instinct to migrate towards people who think and act like we do. This is a normal sort of reinforcement behavior. We tend to like people who agree with us as it reinforces the decisions we make. We need to think a little more about that. I think we need to actively encourage contrary behavior and thought processes. I don’t think we should view this behavior as open defiance or insubordination, but more as a check sum verification.

In looking at a replay of the Dallas receiver’s last play of the game, one of his team mates can be clearly seen trying to get him to run out of bounds instead of up field. It seems he didn’t see him or if he did, he didn’t pay attention to him. Either way it was obvious someone else had thought about the game situation and come up with a different decision for that situation.

As I have said, not everyone makes the right decision every time. And sometimes our instincts are wrong. It’s always good to listen to and think about other possible solutions before relying on instinct and turning and running up field.

It All Counts

After over seven years and more than three hundred articles, I took a little time off from blogging. I needed a break. It wasn’t much of a break. I think it was on the order of a few weeks. It was interesting in that the longer the break went the more I felt the need to get back to writing. I guess that wouldn’t be so bad if I felt I was a better writer.

Be that as it may, I will not allow my lack of talent to stop me from enjoying something. I prove this fact every time I try to play music. So I am back. I have a few new topics already in mind, but I think I will take my time in getting to them. What I will delve into today is going to be the new age joy and scourge of so many of us: Social Media.

My son is a senior in high school, and I believe him to be one of a vanishingly few individuals in North America (if not the civilized world) who does not participate in any social media. He has grown up during the age of social media. Still, he doesn’t have a Facebook account, or a Twitter feed, or any other of a number of social media sources. This pleases my wife since he is blissfully unaware of all the pictures, comments and proclamations she posts about him as he matriculates through life. He doesn’t tweet, friend, post, snap or chat with anyone. What is most surprising to me is that he seems genuinely happy about it too. Go figure.

When I have asked him about it he has blithely responded that he doesn’t see any benefit in participating in social media and if the truth be told he views it as a more of a problem then a benefit when it comes to communicating.

A long, long time ago in a black and white (television) galaxy far, far away, a guy named Art Linkletter had a television show named “Kids Say the Darndest Things”. My son just proved him right.

In this day and age of ubiquitous social media and the ability for anyone to access, generate and present any comment, image, content or position into cyberspace at any time, people seem to have forgotten a very important principle: Other people (not just the ones the content is intended for) can see and read these things. We would like to think that as we are well into the twenty first century that we all enjoy the benefits of freedom of speech and expression. To a large part we do. Except for when we don’t.

Abraham Lincoln said “With great freedom comes great responsibility.” He was as right then as he is now (except if he said it now he would have probably posted it on Facebook and LinkedIn and gotten a ton of “Likes” and “Shares”). What this means today is that just because we have the ability and even the forum to post or say anything we like, it doesn’t mean we should post or say anything we like.

I like picking on meteorologists because to me there are so few occupations where you can be wrong so often and still be regarded as a good meteorologist. I would have said great meteorologist, but that sounded too much like an oxymoron to me. Could there really be something called a great meteorologist?

A great baseball player actually hits the ball and gets on base about thirty percent of the time. This is called a three hundred batting average. Baseball players are praised for succeeding thirty percent of the time, while failing seventy percent of the time. I don’t know what the equivalent batting average is for a good meteorologist is, but I don’t think it is quite as high as a good baseball batting average.

In any event, the topic I am using as an example involves the dismissal of a meteorologist some time ago. This meteorologist wasn’t fired for their inaccurate predictions of the weather. I actually think most people rather expect meteorologists to get the weather prediction wrong. This meteorologist was fired for expressing their own personal opinion on the public forum called the internet.

It seems a group of people took issue with what the meteorologist posted and started to use their own internet based forums to complain. As the groundswell grew, this person’s professional fate was sealed. Job performance had nothing to do with it.

Please notice that I have not said anything about the content or the context of the purported comments. They were not illegal or threatening in any way. I am definitely not saying I agree with them in any way, shape or form. What I am saying is that they were perceived by various groups as being contrary to what those groups viewed as an acceptable position or comment. They took issue with them and as an ever widening group began to complain to the television station about what this meteorologist had posted.

A point I am making here is that it is now a very real and proven possibility that you can in fact lose your job based on what you post in social media or on the internet. The meteorologist in question is not an isolated instance of this type of professional reaction to personal comments. What might be possibly acceptable in the context of a private conversation may not be acceptable in the public realm of social media. What may be heard on the radio may not be acceptable for an individual on the internet.

Think about that for a minute. Some people can be paid for saying shocking things in public and others can be fired for doing the same thing.

Another point to be aware of is that with the quality of today’s search engines, the internet never forgets. Once a comment or post is released into cyberspace, it more than likely remains there forever. It doesn’t matter if it is deleted or erased. It can be exhumed over and over again. Where do you think I get most of my quotes and attributions?

What do you want to be remembered for?

Those embarrassing pictures taken at some party? Yup, they’re out there. That off the cuff, off color comment that you just had to post? It’s there too. That snarky response to someone else’s post? Who could forget that? I think you get the point.

I think those of us in business organizations, as well as just about everyone else I guess, need to remember that once we put something out there, that anyone including our associates, employers and customers have the ability to see it. And just as we are becoming more social media and internet savvy, so are they.

It is not uncommon for would be employers to research candidates via the web for their social media “fingerprints”. What better way to learn about people than to read what they have to say and do in these unrestricted very public forums? I would suspect that every company’s customers are probably doing the same searches as well.

I enjoy social media, and blogging. I actually try to use it as a constructive capability, if you can call this blog a constructive outlet. I’ll leave that to you to decide. I have tried to not lose sight of the fact that not everyone will agree with the positions that I may take. That is a more than acceptable condition as it is the discourse that results from these differences of views and opinions that keeps my interest in the forum. But I always try to understand others points of view before reacting with a potential off the cuff or inflammatory remark.

I think that it has yet to be decided what the outcome of my son’s lack of social media involvement will bring. Will his friends accept that he is “different” in that he doesn’t care to be on social media? Will he have to bow to peer pressure and get on social media if he wants to be able to communicate with his peer group? Will potential future employers be concerned when they do an internet search on him as a potential employment candidate and don’t find years worth of comments and posts?

Or is he possibly just ahead of the curve in recognizing that at least for him, he chooses to define the way he uses the internet as it relates to him?

I’ll have to think about that for a while. In the mean time, I think that as social media continues to garner more and more attention both within the real world and cyberspace, we need to be cognizant of the fact that regardless of what we put out there, it stays there for all to see, and it all counts.