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.  Continue reading


Expertise, Success, and Leadership — Study

Bob Sutton at Work Matters (blog here) has an excellent post on this topic (here), along with comments on a provocative study on the relationship among expertise, success, and leadership.  I agree w/ Bob’s basic premise:

[L]eaders aren’t as easily fooled by hollow smart talk, and are more likely to talk in ways that help their followers succeed (rather than simply sound impressive), when they have past deep experience in the industry along with years of experience doing, managing, and succeeding at the kind of work their people do.

As part of his discussion, Bob points to a study (PDF here, Andrew Gelman’s stats blog commentary here) that purports to prove this point.  Which I guess it does to a certain extent.  It appears that coaches with NBA playing experience have more regular season and playoff success than those who don’t.  It also appears that being a better player — all-star game selection being the proxy — has a bearing on regular season records and a weaker correlation with playoff success (the ultimate measure of achievement in a professional league).

However, the study and related posts throw around “great” and “superstar” when characterizing these ex-all-stars, which stretches the point too far.  I’m not sure anything in this study contradicts the received wisdom that truly great players struggle as coaches or managers.  How many truly great players — looking at Top 50 All-Time in the NBA or Hall of Fame in major league baseball — have had any success as coaches or managers?  Continue reading

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