Leadership Lessons from the Parable of T-Mac

With the NBA season starting back up, I read an article by sports writer Bill Simmons about Tracy McGrady, or T-Mac, written right after the player retired in late August, 2013. In the article, he explored and analyzed the career of T-Mac, which he lamented as a wasted opportunity for a really, really great technical player to become a really, really big superstar.

Simmons determined that a number of factors came into play (pun intended) but that the core of the problem might have been T-Mac’s type of talent. T-Mac wasn’t an inspirational leader. He also wasn’t a bigger-than-life, “alpha dog” figure like Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal. And that may have been the crux of the problem. As Simmons said, “his brilliance was never infectious.”

At WPP, we’re lucky to have a leader – Founder and President Will Perry – whose brilliance and passion for our company and its mission is infectious. Not all companies are so fortunate, so I wanted to share the story of T-Mac and offer my own insights for those who want to know more.

T-Mac Gets a Shot

For those who aren’t familiar with T-Mac, let me put this in perspective. T-Mac’s stats are amazing. They are close to Kobe Bryant’s in regular play, and in play-off games, some of his stats are better. In his article, Simmons noted that Kobe Bryant once told Jimmy Kimmel (at a charity event in front of 5,000 people), that T-Mac was his toughest opponent, ever. Simmons asked Kobe to confirm the comment, and Kobe replied, “No question.” So what kept Kobe Bryant’s toughest opponent from going all the way to the big game?

Simmons lay the blame partly on the NBA expansion period of the 1990s, when teams first began drafting immature kids, fresh from high school, and giving them lots of money but little guidance. It was when, Simmons noted, “We had an inordinate amount of incompetent general managers and owners making a staggering number of shortsighted decisions.” (Simmons wrote the New York Times #1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, so he knows these things.)

Simmons believes that, had T-Mac been born 10 years earlier or later, things might have turned out differently. Even so, Kobe Bryant came out of that same period, and things did turn out differently – very differently – for him. Simmons suggested – and I concur – that team players want to feel compelled to rally around their stars. They want to love (or fear or respect) them so much that they cannot let them down. And fans want their stars to be big, oversized characters they can admire. With those qualities, T-Mac’s outcome might have been different.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting, from my perspective. Companies are no different from sports teams, in many respects. Employees are the “supporting players” and customers are the fans. And just like sports teams, companies can hire the most brilliant talent in the world, but they cannot assume technical brilliance equates to leadership.

Leaders should be brilliant, of course, but they must also be compelling and confident if they are to command loyalty and inspire employees and customers. Great leaders can’t (or shouldn’t) persuade people that bad products are good – but they can be a key reason why employees and customers choose one product over another.

In T-Mac’s case, he wanted to lead – it’s one of the reasons why he left at least one team – but he didn’t know how to capture his teammates’ hearts and souls. True leaders can do this – sometimes without much effort. Leaders that do not possess these qualities can still succeed, but only if they accept their shortcomings and find a different path to success.

At WPP, we have found our path. We place equal weight on great people (both talent and leaders) and superior quality products and services, which we think is the most mindful approach. It’s not always easy, but it’s what a company has to do if it wants to be a Kobe Bryant and not a T-Mac.

Does T-Mac’s story inspire or engage you? Does it make you want to watch more basketball – or commit to improving your own leadership “game”? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts.