What Leaders can learn from Sports Writers

In the 1990s sports writers noticed an interesting phenomenon. Teams that lost their superstar to injury, graduation, or free agency, often outperformed expectations. This idea was named “The Ewing Theory” after star basketball center Patrick Ewing, whose teams consistently performed better when he was not in the lineup, both in college at Georgetown and in the NBA with the New York Knicks. Last year, the theory was in the news again. The Boston Celtics opened the year 20-23 then went 14-4 immediately after losing All-Star point guard Rajon Rhondo to injury. (Click here to see a plethora of examples of the Ewing Theory from the sports world).

One explanation is that superstar egos cause teams to underperform (this would explain the New York Yankees’ during the Alex Rodriguez years). Research on 360-degree feedback and emotional intelligence shows that the best leaders are slightly modest – they view their own performance just below the assessments others make of them. In the NBA, superstars are identified based on their skills, their experience, and their talent – not their modesty or emotional intelligence. Then they are developed, promoted, awarded and rewarded – which happens to be a fairly good playbook for growing egos but does not lend itself to creating great team leaders.
But… we should consider another explanation of The Ewing Theory. There are roughly 15-20 good examples of teams whose performance improved when superstars were unable to play. Compare that to the hundreds, if not thousands of times that as one would expect, a team’s promising season ended with disappointment after the star was lost to injury. It is possible that the 15-20 examples which support The Ewing Theory are simply outliers at the far end of a normal curve of possible outcomes after an unexpected event? That would make The Ewing Theory an athletic Black Swan.
Leaders often make important decisions with incomplete information resembling the 15-20 examples used to form the Ewing Theory. This happens for a number of reasons. First, out of self-preservation, most people say what they think leaders want to hear.  This is  “yes man” syndrome.  Second, leaders receive “facts” that are often sanitized to ignore the complexity of an issue or decision. What remains are the sound-bite facts that support one position, not the whole picture.  Additionally, many leaders feel it is their responsibility to find a solution, rather than to fully explore a question. They go with their “gut” feeling instead of demanding better information. As a result organizations make decisions that make sense, but do not deliver the results we expect.  Ironically, leaders can look to the sports world for examples of how better information (used with tools such as sports analytics and Saber metrics) result in improved decisions and performance.
So how can leaders make decisions based on better information?

  • Use alternative methods (such as Ethnographic Research) to collect information about your organization, markets, customers, etc.
  • Open your inner circle – take advice from people with whom you tend to disagree. Abraham Lincoln used this approach to great effect by surrounding himself with a cabinet of political rivals to remove blind-spots and improve his decision making.
  • Collect input on key decisions from all levels in the org chart to harness the collective intelligence of an organization
  • Encourage constructive criticism rather than silencing those with opposing opinions