Athletes - Leadership/Character

Is Talent an Overvalued Commodity?

The Oakland Raiders were recently booed out of their home stadium.

This past offseason, the Raiders added a set of players who were all high talent, but notoriously low character. The team was 4-12 in 2018 and currently sit at 6-8 on the season.

Their fans are not happy. They expected more. Why?

The Cleveland Browns are also stuck at 6-8, having just lost by two scores to a 4-9-1 Cardinals team.

The Browns only won 7 games last year and are just two years out from a miserable 0-16 season – one of the worst in NFL history.

Like the Raiders, the Browns also locked up key offseason talent, including the supremely talented Odell Beckham Jr.

Odell heralds himself as the only reason the New York Giants, his former team, are relevant. According to himself, he was the one “keeping the [New York Giants] brand alive.”

Far worse still, the Bowns elected to acquire the talented Kareem Hunt, who had just come off an 8-game suspension for assaulting a woman in a Cleveland hotel last year.

The Browns, 7-24-1 over a two year span, added talent and were predicted to be Super Bowl contenders.

Super Bowl contenders? How?

Those Browns predictions, just like the optimism of Raiders fans, come from an understandable but misguided place. Talent is overrated.

A team’s success is a fickle puzzle of players, coaches, strategy and – importantly – culture. It is foolish to think that an injection of talent could convert a messy culture into an elite one.

Character and culture beat talent every time.

Parallel Arenas

If a business were to hire a dozen former CEOs with high business acumen but low character to lead a company, what would happen?

Is the Enron scandal still a relevant story?

On the other hand, companies which routinely perform at the elite level have elite values. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm, prides itself on being purpose-driven, performance-oriented, and principles-led. With their priorities in line, BlackRock focuses on recruiting people who are willing to commit to the values of their organization.

There is a base level of talent/ability required to work there, of course. But their new definition of “talent” goes beyond cognitive ability to include high character and selfless commitment as primary measures.

Culture, not talent, is the secret ingredient to their success.

This plays out in almost every arena.

In romantic relationships, it is not the couples who have great talent for arguing that “win,” but the couples who are able to subscribe to couple-first values – it’s those who bring their unique sets of abilities to the relationship but focus on healthy interaction and shared purpose, rather than constantly making the partner aware of their individual strengths.

Professional relationships are similar. If a coworker is constantly straining to prove his talent to the company, then he is not providing the right sort of value. Successful professionals work toward positive interactions with their coworkers and successful engagement with customers in a way that reflects the priorities of the organization. They use their ability to serve the company’s purpose. If the top salesman is a jerk, professional relationships suffer. His talent will be hidden behind his arrogance.

Relationships require self-awareness, humility and shared purpose to be successful. What is a team if not an intricate set of relationships?

The Difference in Professional Sports

You have to have a minimum level of talent to compete. That’s obvious.

But consider that any given NFL roster, 53 people deep, is about as talented as the next. If you take the average speed, strength, jumping ability, and college resume of these athletes you would have some impressive numbers, but very little variance.

In other words, professional sports rosters are full of super-human talent. The variance between teams is negligible.

Still, it happens all the time. Teams are regularly wooed by talent, misunderstanding that talent is not the distinguishing factor – especially in professional athletics.

This delusion spans sports. At one point, Dwight Howard was the most coveted basketball free-agent on the market. His talent, his ability, was unparalleled in the NBA at the time. Why didn’t the Lakers win with him as their leader? Why did the Howard experiment fizzle once again in Houston?

Dustin Pedroia, former 2nd baseman for the Boston Red Sox, is 5’8″ 160 lbs. if he’s standing up straight after a big dinner. Surrounded by countless bigger, faster, stronger athletes, Pedroia was a 2-time All-Star, 2-time World Series Champion, and the 2008 MLB MVP. It wasn’t talent that pushed him and his teams to the next level.

Julian Edelman was not invited to the NFL combine. His unlikely story of NFL success includes 3 Super Bowl Championships and the 2018 Super Bowl MVP. How does Edelman, a perpetual underdog, outperform a supreme talent like Raiders offseason acquisition Antonio Brown?

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – AUGUST 29: Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots looks on from the sideline during the preseason game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on August 29, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

It’s character. It’s commitment to team culture. It’s the community of an organization that drives behavior. In professional sports, talent is secondary.

Teams which succeed have cultures created by coaches and upheld by leaders on the team. If a team were to add Tom Brady in the offseason, fans would have something to be optimistic about. They would have positively impacted the character of their team.

But if a team adds Vontaze Burfict, why would that lead to success?

What it Takes to Win

For Cleveland or Oakland to contend at the highest level, they will have to reevaluate their criteria for recruitment. That criteria will have little to do with 40 times or bench press repetitions.

To identify teams which have a chance at winning the Super Bowl, look for high character competitors. Find the ones who will play for each other when the game is on the line.

To identify which NFL Draft picks will pan out, look for the same.

Identifying speed is easy, a clock can tell you that. Identifying character is trickier. The coaches who have continued success are constantly scanning for this sort of player.

That is the work they are willing to do.

Coaches, parents, and leaders of all kinds, are you willing to do the same?

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