But We Can’t All Be Michael Jordan – The Challenge: Building Success with Average Folks

I am bothered.

I am a big fan of making people and companies better.  I have written many times about the need for constant innovation, perpetual improvement, pushing folks to get better (pushing myself to get better).

Just yesterday, I re-read the classic essay by David Halberstam about the end of Michael Jordan’s playing career:  Jordan’s Moment (from December, 1998).  It is a really terrific read (Halberstam at his best – and Halberstam was the best!), and it showed how Michael Jordan understood what new skill(s) he had to develop in his last years of play, and, how he practiced/learned/mastered these new skill(s).  Consider this paragraph, from near the end of his playing career:

In 1995, after Jordan returned to basketball from his year-and-a-half-long baseball sabbatical, he spent the summer in Hollywood making the movie “Space Jam,” but he demanded that the producers build a basketball court where he could work out every day.  Old friends dropping by the Warner lot noticed that he was working particularly hard on a shot that was already a minor part of his repertoire but which he was now making a signature shot––a jumper where he held the ball, faked a move to the basket, and then, at the last minute, when he finally jumped, fell back slightly, giving himself almost perfect separation from the defensive player. Because of his jumping ability and his threat to drive, that shot was virtually unguardable. More, it was a very smart player’s concession to the changes in his body wrought by time, and it signified that he was entering a new stage in his career. What professional basketball men were now seeing was something that had been partly masked earlier in his career by his singular physical ability and the artistry of what he did, and that something was a consuming passion not just to excel but to dominate. “He wants to cut your heart out and then show it to you,” his former coach Doug Collins said. “He’s Hannibal Lecter,” Bob Ryan, the Boston Globe’s expert basketball writer, said. When a television reporter asked the Bulls’ center, Luc Longley, for a one-word description of Jordan, Longley’s response was “Predator.”

But…but…  we are not all, we are not any of us, Michael Jordan.  And this is why I am bothered.  The rest of us are mere mortals, and we cannot match the gifts, or the brilliant insights, or the work ethic, or the resources of such a a one-of-a-kind master craftsman.

In other words, a lot of the world really is average.  In fact, the average person really is… average.  Really.

I have even written a blog post or two in which I praised the “average,” the “mediocre.”  I have said that we have to have companies and organizations that learn to do as well as they possibly can with “average” workers.

Some say that we can’t abide mediocrity.  I get that.  I want exceptional service, exceptional products, exceptional work done.  And if I were having surgery, I would not put out a call for service that says:  “Wanted:  mediocre surgeon to perform surgery on me in my moment of need.”

But the fact remains that there are many, many surgeons, and only a small percentage (5% to be exact) are in the top 5% of surgeons.  The rest are farther down the pack.  And people put their lives in their hands every day.

So, this article from Leadership Freak grabbed my attention:  Organizations Where Average Leaders Excel.  From the article:

By definition most of us are average. Even though:
            68% of the faculty at the University of Nebraska rate themselves in the top 25% of teaching ability.
            90% students see themselves as more intelligent than the average student.
            93% of U.S. drivers put themselves in the top 50% of driving ability.
            92% of teachers say they are less biased than average. That one is uniquely hilarious.
            96% of leaders today believe they have above average people skills. Stanford University School of Business.
On average, most of us think we are above average. Leaders, like everyone else, suffer from illusory superiority.

In the article, Gary Hamel is quoted as saying:  “We need to create organizations where average leaders can enjoy extraordinary success.”

So, the idea may be that with proper and exceptional management systems and processes, with more attention to helping “average” workers be more productive, then we can up the results.

But here is what I know – there really are only 5% in the top 5% of any arena.  “Grade inflation” does not produce smarter people.  And vocabulary (calling “average workers” by loftier superlatives) does not wipe out the fact that there are lots and lots of people who are average.  In fact, most people are averageaverage workers, average leaders, average anything.

Our challenge, it seems to me, is to build the best success we can with our average workers.

One thought on “But We Can’t All Be Michael Jordan – The Challenge: Building Success with Average Folks

  1. Rob Cormican

    By definition, half of us are worse than average in any particular field. I know I am!! That’s a lot. It is enough to win a vote in most democracies. In many groups there is a bell curve, so that “most” people are grouped around the middle, grouped around average. Some are more average than others! We are fortunate that in the main, average is pretty good anyway !?!


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