In his classic book on architecture The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander offered this observation about bad architecture: “When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of its maker that there is no room for its own nature.” Alexander offered this advice to those architects who try to take their ego out of a building design: “You are able to do this only when you no longer fear that nothing will happen….”
Although Alexander’s work is to help architects design buildings that have “the quality without a name,” his work has universal applicability. This quality, he pointed out, “cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of people, just as a flower cannot be made but only generated from the seed.” Continuing his gardening metaphor, Alexander points out, “If you want to make a living flower, you don’t build it physically, with tweezers, cell by cell. You grow it from the seed…No process of construction can ever create this kind of complexity directly.”
Consider The New York Yankees—each year a new team of high priced mercenaries is assembled. If opening day is an indication, this year’s team promises to be another boring collection of players who have no idea of what team play means. On the mound was CC Sabathia; we are told that the Yankees were fortunate to sign him to a $161 million free agent contract. Pitching against the Orioles on Monday, he looked at least 40 pounds overweight; he barely made it past the 4th inning.
In order to avoid injury and maximize his performance, a team player would take pride in being in top physical condition. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Covlin, although not necessarily writing about sports, observes:
Trust is the most fundamental element of a winning team. If people think their teammates are lying, withholding information, or plotting to knife them, nothing valuable will get done. Similarly, team members may not trust one another’s competence. Such teams don’t create synergy. They created the opposite, dysergy-two plus two equals three, with luck.
So-called dream teams may be in trouble from the start because team members often have particular reasons to be distrustful.
Great coaches and managers know that, as important as talent is, a collection of big egos will perform to a level less than the sum of the parts. Consider the 1980 Olympic U.S. hockey team, the “Miracle on Ice” team, which won the gold medal at Lake Placid, NY. The U.S. team, composed of amateurs, was up against the team from the Soviet Union, considered to be the best team in the world. When Craig Patrick, the assistant coach of the U.S. team, said to head coach Herb Brooks, “You’re missing the best players,” Herb is reported to have responded, “I’m not looking for the best players, Craig. I’m lookin’ for the right ones.”
John Wooden was the coach of the legendary UCLA basketball teams that won seven consecutive national championships. Many consider Wooden the greatest coach of any sport in history. High praise indeed! But if you examine his record, his coaching philosophy, and how he conducted himself, it would be hard to argue with that assessment.
Among Wooden’s talented players was Sidney Wicks. When Wicks first came to UCLA, he was not a good team player; he was impatient. In his book, Be Quick-But Don’t Hurry, co-written with Coach Wooden, Andrew Hill relates the story of when Wooden banned Wicks from the starting lineup in favor of Lynn Shackleford. Wicks asked Coach Wooden, “Aren’t I better player than Lynn Shackleford?” Wooden responded, “Why yes, you are, Sydney, and when you learn to play with the team, you will start, but not before then.” It took Wicks a full season to get the point, but he went on to become a great team player. In college, he became national player of the year; and in the MBA, he was rookie of the year.
If you are a sports fan, reflect for a moment on the most memorable games in any sports that you have seen. On your list of games is probably one played by a team that grew organically and overcame adversity. Although as a fan you weren’t on the team, your life was enhanced not because your team won, but because you learned and were inspired by watching their journey. If you allowed that lesson to sink in, you too were inspired to become more of what you could be.
I’m a life-long New York Yankees fan. But who—outside of a Wall Street banker buying his expensive tickets from a taxpayer paid bonus—would care if this current gang of mercenaries wins? Are they fun to watch? My answer is no. As Alexander would point out, they are lifeless. More than that, they they promote values that, if applied, subtract from our lives. They teach Americans that there is nothing that a little more money cannot cure. They teach Americans that the outcome, rather than the process, is all that matters.