It’s basketball season again.  One often hears about great sports teams that they ‘played beyond themselves.’  And yet, one of the great failings I often observe, especially in the sport of basketball which I have played all my life, are players who don’t play within their limits.

Players who persistently try to play beyond their limits end up attempting ambitious plays – fancy passes, trick shots, aggressive overplaying on defence – only to commit costly turnovers.  Turnovers are the most prominent ‘downside’ in KPI (key performance indicator) in the sport of basketball.  Not just does the team lose the ball (which also happens with a missed shot), but they often occur in a fashion which gives the opposing team momentum and make the likelihood of scoring very high.

I noticed this dynamic first when my son Chase first started playing on my team in our adult basketball league.  He was 15 and still just picking up the sport.  But on the court, he was not the weakest player.  That is because, he played within his limits.  He knew what he could do on court and he stuck to doing those things – ‘core competency’ in management consulting jargon.  As a result, he made a solid even if modest contribution on the court with relatively few things done that hurt the team.  On the other hand, a number of our team with many more skills and much more experience constantly tried to accomplish things that their skills just were not up to and as a result, for every useful play they made, they often made just as many or more hurtful plays.  While Chase’s play remained solidly net positive, the showboats vacillated wildly from heroic to disastrous and in the end most of the time the effect was net negative.

This dynamic relates closely to the Leader/Manager paradigm because at the end of the day it is about taking risks.  Playing within one’s own capability does not mean not taking risks.  But rather it means performing within a standard deviation of high probability of success (eg.  shooting within your range where you get a high percentage of your shots in).  That is not to say that sometimes a player doesn’t try something a bit daring or unconventional.  I am saying that if they do it in proportion to their capability to do such manoeuvres then actually they are playing within their limits.  I’m 90% likely to hit a lay-up, 80% likely to hit a 5-footer, 60% likely to hit a 10 footers,  10% likely to hit a 3 pointer.  Therefore, if the situation is right (eg.  open shot versus, guarded, good position, good rebounding in place), me shooting a 3 pointer on a rare occasion is actually playing within my limits.  As with most things with business, especially from the perspective of this blog, the dynamics are determined by the risks. 

Many people who do not see the preparation watch a sporting event and are amazed by feats of prowess and marvel at the uncanny performance often thinking the athletes have outdone themselves, but in most cases, the athletes themselves are not amazed and would assert that they trained hours for just such a moment.

So if  ‘slow and steady wins the race’, does that mean that sports performance ‘on the day’ is all about good Management?  Where is the place for Leadership which focuses on that upside of achieving more than thought possible?  In my view it is in the preparation.  The Leader prepares the team beyond their limits; the Manager focuses the execution within their limits. 

This perspective reinforces the ‘lifecycle’ model of Leadership which says that different Leader/Manager styles/skills/personas come to the fore at different stages of group’s maturity (cf.  Situational Leadership – 22-Nov-06 entry).  Leaders come to the fore at the outset when preparation is paramount; Managers come to the fore during execution.  Entrepreneurs are typically cut from the ‘Leader’ cloth, seeing upside in a market opportunity.  But quite often, companies bring in ‘seasoned management’ once the company has attained critical mass.  Once it has developed an entity worth protecting from downside.

Often a stellar performance is characterized as ‘being in the zone’ which itself implies a sense of boundary.  It refers to the performance where everything is ‘just working’ very comfortably, very naturally for the athlete.  Getting ‘in the zone’ is the product of leadership preparation; performing in the zone is the product of managing execution.  Great performers do the following: Prepare beyond your limits; play within your limits.