The 'Art' of Chemistry

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


I always worry that sports analogies are just too easy, but there's no doubt that the combination of great talent and pure determination in sports is fairly irresistible, and pretty much demands comparison to every other struggle. And hey, if you can figure out how your 'leadership' can get the most out of those two characteristics, you can probably rule the world.

Except this: The psychologists (and not just anyone, but Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman) argue that the impact of conventional leadership on performance is far overrated. Apparently, if you analyze firings of coaches in every major sport (there are many corporate examples as well), you will find zero impact on team performance. In fact, leaders often have a measurably negative impact - such as yelling at someone after a poor performance. We think we're great leaders, but often we are just getting in the way.

OK, I'm fine with that, except then you have to deal with the example of Darryl Sutter who took over the talented but underperforming Los Angeles Kings part way through the 2011-12 NHL season and 'led' them to a 25-13-11 regular season and a 16-4 playoff record en route to the Stanley Cup, knocking off the first, second and third seeds in the process. Do we just dismiss that, when nothing else occurred that could explain the turnaround? Can anyone really argue that Sutter's 'leadership' wasn't key to that success?

Or is there more to it? Everyone in Toronto is struck by the Toronto Raptors' Rudy Gay trade this year. A star player with an underperforming team, Gay was traded away mainly to save his salary and build for the future. But something funny happened. The team, 7-12 at the trade, went 41-22 the rest of the season, on the way to a number three seed in the playoffs. And even more interesting: Rudy Gay's play also improved since the trade, making his new team, Sacramento, better than they were.

I've read that the Raptors' players are sick of that stat, as if it was all about trading Gay, and their hard work and great execution had nothing to do with the great results. I get their complaint, but - come on - that sudden reversal of fortune is too big to dismiss. In fact, it's been driving me crazy.

Perhaps the Nobel guy and the hockey coach are both right. Maybe Sutter didn't lead in the conventional way. Maybe he mostly just changed the temperature, the mood, the feel. He knew he had a skilled hockey team, maybe he also knew it was much more about the team's dynamics, not his own so called leadership skills. The Raptor's dynamics are clearly far better without Gay, stunningly so (and Sacramento is also a better team). We all know how much better we perform when we love what we're doing and - just as importantly - the people we are doing it with.

So instead of constantly saying (in so many words) 'I'm the leader, listen up', perhaps leaders should focus much more on creating great 'chemistry' within the strong team that they already have (and are constantly building), and then just step back and let them build confidence in themselves and each other. Perhaps accountability and discipline are far more powerful when they are self imposed. No-one ever wants to let their friends down when something great is being attempted. Including Rudy Gay. Maybe it's all about great chemistry - which enables leadership from everyone. What do you think?