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Behind The Scenes Of Elite Performance Life
As our world shrinks to little but screen content, there is no blacker humour than the ongoing screening of Getaway before the Channel 9 evening news.
“Tonight, we’ll do things you want to do desperately, but can’t. Why not book a holiday, like the last three you booked? So you can have it cancelled at the last minute as fucking usual and spend months battling for a refund!” *theme tune plays* “GETAWAY!”
So this week, another story based on a show I watched. Hey, TV streaming is our only chance to get away from house arrest reality for many of us.
Stories that bring you unexpected joy are one of the few pleasant shared experiences we have at the moment.
This show – Australian Story on basketball star Luc Longley – is a fascinating peek behind the scenes of the elite performance life.
What happens when you team a chilled-out, empathetic guy with one of the most driven sportsmen in history, Michael Jordan?
It questions some of the usual assumptions about success.
For us un-athletic, regular-size people, it raises the question: are you holding yourself back by surrounding yourself by people just the same as you?
Everyone I know who’s watched the show – men, women, sports fans, people who hate sport – responded with something like:
“Wow Luc Longley, great story and what a lovely, genuine man.”
It’s a story for quiet people who always get left out of things.
The Rise Of A Quiet, Relaxed Man
For those like me who don’t know much basketball, Luc Longley was the first Australian to play in the US National Basketball Association.
He was a quiet, relaxed guy from Fremantle. He had no urgent drive toward basketball, but he ended up in the US after a random talent scout noticed the guy with a red mullet who couldn’t fit through normal human doorways.
A few trades later he ended up as a key member of the 90s Chicago Bulls, the greatest NBA team to ever take the court. Their six championship wins were the subject of Netflix documentary The Last Dance.
If you watched that series, Longley didn’t exist. Wikipedia lists 90 people interviewed. Justin Timberlake and Carmen Electra made the cut, but no Longley. He’s in out-of-focus background in a few shots.
The producers cited the cost of sending a crew to remote Australia, but the overall vibe is they kind of forgot he was in the team. There were too many shiny stars to focus on.
The Australian Story episodes provide the missing pieces.
There’s footage of Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player of all time, harassing his relaxed Australian team-mate to take it more seriously, to be more aggressive, to deliver 100% every night.
Jordan liked to yell at people. Longley described his leadership approach as “carnivorous”.
For Jordan, there’s no point to any of it unless you win. Vesuvian flames of competitiveness burn within him. He got to the top through insane discipline and willpower. The idea that other people might not feel that way was an affront to him.
“Unfortunately everyone don’t have the same mentality,” he says.
Longley was running on different fuel.
“I cared about my teammates more than I cared about winning. Winning became how to reward them, so that’s part of what drove me to be good.”
Jordan doesn’t say it, but it’s pretty clear that if Jordan had been doing the job interviews, he wouldn’t have hired Longley in 1994.
Yet, as the seasons went on, they both learned from each other, and they made each other better. Longley pushed himself to be more aggressive.
And Jordan said of Longley:
“That calm demeanour and acceptance for all different types of people is an unbelievable trait. Any day I was frustrated or angered, I’d look at Luc and go: it’s not life or death. It’s good to have people around like that.”
They went on to rewrite the record books. Relaxed, present-day billionaire Jordan looks back on it:
“I loved him as a team-mate. If you asked me to do it all over again there’s no way I would leave Luc Longley off my team. No way possible. Because he mattered. He had an impact on me. He made me better as a player, you know, as a person.”
Back in the coastal village of Denmark W.A, Longley is fine about his relationship with Jordan. He sees the initial abrasiveness as a perfectly normal element of being in a team like that, even if he didn’t enjoy it at the time.
(It’s also fun to remember simpler times when Dennis Rodman became a world-famous Bad Boy for being the only star at his level with visible tattoos and a mad haircut. Pioneering work.)
It’s worth watching the unedited Jordan interview footage. He brings an intelligent, self-aware perspective on how teams work and the wisdom he built up. To this day, he works hard to switch off that burning competitive urge post-sports. For him, fishing is the answer.
Your Staff Are Not You
When you start a business, it’s a time of obsessive focus and self-sacrifice.
It’s easy to start believing everyone thinks that way, and that it’s an essential mindset for staff.
They don’t, and it isn’t.
That strategy is actively bad for building a team.
It’s a natural tendency to treat job interviews and business deals like looking in a mirror. You meet someone who has exactly the same background, values, viewpoints and interests as you. You go: at last, here’s the right person.
“Let’s choose him, he seems like a good guy.”
I say guy because that’s the traditional way this plays out.
On merit, as they say.
Gender, racial and other forms of diversity get most of the attention and deservedly so, they’re important.
Diversity has other, more low-key forms that are essential to understand, if you aim to create a strong organisation.
Diversity of personality, behaviour, thinking, motivation, background.
Black Widow Spiders
I caught up with an old client, he’s a successful investor and serial founder.
We had worked together on one of his brands, in a professional sector where all the key players are elite achievers.
Each has been told they’re the smartest person in the world since they were small children. In their workplace they are worshipped as gods and their word is law (they are not literally in law). Three of them were the other shareholders and the public faces of the organisation.
When I worked with them, they were pleasant but didn’t mind telling me how to do my job based on what they reckoned.
I hadn’t seen my client for a few years. I asked how that brand was going.
“Oh my God Ian, they’re like Black Widow spiders. They all just turned on each other. I had to exit while I still could.”
I’ve heard the same stories from other business friends quite a few times.
Like when an elite team is put together to do the big deal, the best of the best in each category. The top lawyers, bankers, accountants, management consultants and so on.
The story always ends the same way. An Avengers Infinity War of super-powered beings, all convinced that they are right and should be in charge.
It’s usually a disaster.
There were no Longleys on the team.
So many great people I’ve worked with just love being part of a team they like and respect. If they win, they’re proud of that, but winning isn’t what gets them there.
A Final No-Diversity Case Study
You see this problem in government now. Apart from still being Blokesworld, there’s little diversity of background.
In times past we were represented by people who had worked in non-political professions, owned small businesses, worked in the community, and generally mixed with regular people.
Now – and this is a problem on all sides of politics – they start in student politics, get a job as a government staffer, become an MP and perhaps a minister. When your whole life has been politics, your whole existence is about backroom manouevres, scoring points and getting elected.
Not about serving your constituents or making the country better. And that’s a big reason why Parliament House has such a Lord Of The Flies vibe at present.
Different perspectives make your team perform better.
Embrace the quiet ones, the weird ones, the ones who refuse to drink your Kool Aid. One day you’ll look back and realise you needed them as much as they needed you.
This week’s story dedicated to my friend Brad. Go well mate.
Holy shit it’s Fathers Day weekend after next, you haven’t bought him anything yet, and the stores are closed. Why not buy him a copy of my book Undisruptable?
Reader Dan, father of three, said:
“My kids ended up listening to quite a few passages because I kept laughing so much they insisted I read bits out to them”.
Who says wholesome family times can’t come from a business book? As a bonus, I’m doing customised video shout-outs for Dads who get the book for Fathers Day, because I’m trapped in lockdown and it’ll keep me entertained. Here’s the deal (click through to YouTube for the instructions), buy the book here.
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