Steve Jobs, CEOs and Basketball Coaches

In 2009, I asked if CEOS and basketball coaches were similar. I cited an article by Stanford professor Bob Sutton who wrote:

Jeff Pfeffer published a paper in 1977 in the Academy of Management Review showing that leader’s actions rarely account for more than 10% of the variation in organizational performance, and often, account for much less.

Steve Jobs, however, may be the uber-CEO. Jobs and Apple are synonymous. Apple was a forgotten entity when Jobs returned from Pixar and set forth turning Apple into the most profitable business on earth. Maybe it is marketing or the media’s portrayal, but it would be hard to argue that Jobs accounted for less than 10% of the variation in Apple before and after his return.

Therefore, if we want to learn from an influential CEO, Jobs may be the model. After all, if one wanted to learn how to be an effective coach, would he look at the average or would he examine John Wooden, Phil Jackson, Pat Summit, Bob Hurley or another similarly successful and influential coach? When we want to learn about best practices, do we examine the mean or the outliers? Pfeffer may have portrayed the mean of CEOs accurately; however, one would have to argue that he did not explain an outlier like Steve Jobs.

In the October 2011 Wired, Steven Levy wrote about Steve Jobs and his letter of resignation in August. The title of the article is “The Perfect CEO.” He describes the perfect chief executive (Jobs) as:

“Understanding customers and what they want, even if they don’t know yet. Mastery of market dynamics. The acumen of a poker champ. Commitment to excellence and brutal rejection of ‘good enough.’ Accountability when things go wrong. Charisma that makes product launches as exciting as a Springsteen show…He also had a talent that no other CEO could boast of – the ability to defy the corporate equivalent of nature’s law. ‘If anybody’s going to make out products obsolete,’ he once told [Levy], ‘I want it to be us.'”

What can a coach take away from this description?

  • Understanding players and what they can do, even if they do not know it yet.
  • Commitment to excellence and brutal rejection of ‘good enough.’
  • Accountability when things go wrong.
  • Charisma – a coach has to be able to hold his or her audience (the team).
  • Innovation – knowing when to change one’s system to stay ahead of the game rather than allowing the opposition (defense, offense) to make the system obsolete.

Levy goes on to write:

“The bane of Silicon Valley is the Innovator’s Dilemma, which says that once a company takes the lead in any given domain, it becomes less able to come up with radical innovations in that field. Jobs seemed to have discovered a powerful counterforce: the Innovator’s Gyre, where each dizzying breakthrough leads to another.”

Many coaches suffer from the Innovator’s Dilemma in one way or another. Once they have success with one style of play, it is hard to change. However, especially at the youth and high school levels where a coach often has no control of the personnel, different teams require different systems or approaches. A great coach innovates when necessary. More importantly, great coaches never stop learning. They are not scared to change their approach for the betterment of their players or the team.

Apple is an amazing company, an Jobs was an amazing leader. He was an outlier. However, in sports, that is the goal: to be the outlier. Nobody aspires to be .500. Everyone wants the ring. Everyone wants to be the 1%. To be the 1% requires a different approach than the mean. Levy’s description of Jobs describes only some of the attributes of a successful coach, but several of the most important.

By Brian McCormick
Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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