Why truly-great performers struggle as leaders

Following up on my previous post on expertise, success, and leadership (here), I’d like to explore the notion that being accomplished in one’s field is an advantage in leadership and management roles.  As I noted before, such a positive relationship is clear — up to a point. 

My belief is that being a truly elite performer — not simply a star — is actually a detriment when leading teams, groups, and organizations.  This disadvantage is driven by at least two factors:

  • Superstars have limited empathy or understanding of the challenges merely good performers face.  Whether the gap is driven by differences in motivation, dedication, or talent , I don’t know.  But there is abundant evidence of former elite athletes failing in two ways: losing patience with apparent effort or preparation shortfalls OR running a very loose ship and expecting the team to simply know what to do.
  • Elite skills are often tacit and innate.  The true superstar sees/feels the game differently than others.  Wayne Gretsky was asked how he was in the proper position so often.  His answer: “I go where the puck is going to be.”  Who taught him that?  How would one teach that skill?  If it could be taught, wouldn’t that advantage be already arbitraged away?

One of the reasons that merely excellent players can be excellent coaches as well is that they can bridge these gaps.  They are close enough to the elite to empathize with the pressures and demands of being a great performer. 

For example, one of the posts referenced by Bob Sutton’s post (here) called Phil Jackson a “bench warmer”.  However, Jackson was named to the NBA all-rookie team and was a key substitute on the Knicks championship teams (especially 1973).  While his knee problems ensured he would never be more than a second-line player, he did play with some of the great players of his time in the greatest media market of all time: New York City.

In fact, along with Jackson, other recently successful basketball and baseball leaders — Doc Rivers and Terry Francona — also had playing careers and potential that were stunted by injury.  Suffering the trials of injury, rehabilitation, and reduced playing time must give them interesting insights on how to manage supporting players that most stars would not have.


One Response

  1. […] in light of the current financial turmoils in the market.  It is also interesting in light of a post by Paul Ritchie entitled “Why Truly Great Performers Struggle as Leaders.” Ritchie […]

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