Business & Sports

Character & Motivation

In The New York Review of Books of February 24, 2000, Malcolm Gladwell reviews three books about coaching football. Having little interest in subjects regularly covered by Sports Illustrated, I skipped the review, entitled "True Grit," until I realized who’d written it. Mr. Gladwell’s many articles in The New Yorker, on such topics as e-commerce and the ‘degrees of separation’ phenomenon, have made his name a banner that I will readily follow into odd, even hostile territory. The things that he brings back from his encounters are always the things that would interest me and, thanks to his research, do. Visit Mr. Gladwell's Site.

As the son of a Notre Dame alumnus (and a double-Domer myself), I don’t need to be told very much about Knute Rockne, the subject of Rockne of Notre Dame: The Making of a Football Legend, by Ray Robinson. I know who Vince Lombardi was, but I if think about him at all, it’s only to ponder the nature of populist monuments: what, really, is the tribute of having an unprepossessingly-housed set of public bathrooms and vending machines, together with a parking lot off the New Jersey Turnpike, named in your honor? Curiosity on this point, however, probably won’t force me to read When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, by David Maraniss. As for the third, and only living, coach in Mr. Gladwell’s roundup, I couldn’t tell you the name of Mike Shanahan’s team at gunpoint, even though I’ve read the review several times, even aloud to my wife (it’s really pretty funny). But even without reading Mr. Shanahan’s book, Think Like a Champion (with Adam Schefter), I can tell whom it’s aimed at, because it’s published by HarperBusiness.

HarperBusiness presumably markets its publications to the kind of reader who would willingly sit through a dreary convention banquet as long as a coach like Mr. Shanahan provided the after-dinner entertainment. What interests Malcolm Gladwell about the books under review is the mythology that has grown up about the nature of coaching football, a mythology that I suspect has been tended and watered largely by businessmen. ‘Character’ and ‘motivation’ seem to be the twin stars of this imaginary constellation, shedding an ennobling light upon the heroes of the field while at the same time enabling their successes.

Whether the mythology is helpful to athletes doesn’t concern me. It’s the eagerness of businessmen to apply the secrets that coaches offer in after-dinner speeches and in books like Mr. Shanahan’s to their own teams back at the office that begins, with a little thought, to look odd. Mr. Gladwell certainly takes care of the little thought. What makes "True Grit" so jolly for me is its demythologizing conclusion that, contrary to wishful wisdom, coaches don’t build character and they don’t motivate their teams. Rather, they manipulate the personalities of their players and induce psychotic belligerence.

Well, Mr. Gladwell calls it ‘temporary hysteria.’ But surely ‘belligerence’ is a fair word for conduct that inflicts very serious wounds without the aid of weapons. And only ‘psychosis’ can account for the detachment with which the severely injured players mentioned in these books – Mr. Shanahan among them, in his college days – finish out games. As for the trumpery of ‘building character,’ consider Mr. Shanahan’s glee at having discovered a way to keep the his team in the hotel on the night before a big game: “At the Super Bowl one year, he cordoned off the second floor of the hotel and filled it with games – air hockey, pool, pop-a-shot, ping pong – so the players would have no reason to wander out from his supervision.” One of Knute Rockne’s character-building stunts involved a fake telegram, allegedly from his hospitalized son, begging the team to play well for ‘MY DADDY.’ The boys wiped away their tears and then rushed out to wallop Georgia Tech.

The dissonance between what coaches do and what they claim they do would be funny, the way all pompous hypocrisy is funny if seen from the right angle, but for the mass delusion among businessmen that there’s a useful message here somewhere.

The truth is, of course, that all the great football players and coaches feel that way ["want to win more than they want to live"]. They’ll play and coach without kidneys, and while passing kidney stones, and after twenty-three operations, and with life-threatening blood clots and in freezing cold weather, and after throwing up on their agent’s shoes. That’s what makes them good at football. Whatever lesson there is in this for the rest of us is a mystery.

In other words, there’s no lesson. As Mr. Gladwell observes, the tricks of famous coaches are of little or no use to anyone trying to build up the ‘long-term morale’ of a business staff. Office workers are not likely to be fooled by fake telegrams; they very well might not believe real ones. They are protected by redoubts of legislation and litigation from physical danger of any kind: violence (e.g. kicking, tackling, throwing) is against the rules. Very simply, stable jobs offer precious few occasions for the rush of adrenalin that accompanies physical aggression. Closing a sale may be very satisfying, but it probably won’t numb the pain of a broken wrist. And how many people in an office get the satisfaction of closing anything anyway?


Team sports and business enterprises have both been around for centuries, but about a hundred and fifty years ago both were refashioned according to an idea that lay at the root of the industrial revolution, although it was not that idea that made that revolution possible. What made the industrial revolution was the idea of fungibility. Perhaps under the rationalizing influence that guided the scientific revolution, the artisans of the seventeenth century learned how to make the small elements – literally the nuts and the bolts – out of which the machinery of the coming era would be built. The essential novelty introduced by these tool-makers was interchangeability. Any given nut or nail would differ from the maker’s other nuts and nails by small and certain degrees, so that within bounds each nut could be replaced by any other. The indispensability of reliable standards was fully established by 1800, by which time it applied to a great deal more than nuts and bolts. Weights and measures (including, for example, temperatures) were standardized, and in general the material world was given over to the sweeping quantitative analysis that made our world of appliances and amenities possible. As the mechanics were worked out, thinkers everywhere became infatuated with something new: System.

In any system, any two people can be made to do the same task in the same way, just like any two nuts or bolts. Dislike of the initially very oppressive regularity that this idea imposed upon the new working classes erupted immediately and has never ceased, Nothing could be more familiar to the liberally-educated mind than laments about the detachment and alienation of modern affairs. But the opponents of mechanization, whether Luddite, Marxist, or Green, have hardly ever impeded, and never prevented, its adoption. Computers, arguably, have so altered its course that proletariats everywhere – the working stiffs (wonderful phrase) whose only function was to imitate machines that hadn’t been invented – are in danger of unemployment. Unemployment as proletarians, I hasten to note. But the future is another subject.

A century and a half ago, it became de rigueur to speak of the ‘science’ of each and every undertaking, no matter how remote from the laboratory. Today’s law and business schools were set up on the theory that wild and woolly secular practices could be tamed and trimmed into scientific systems. Heavy industry seemed for a long time to be no more than an application of scientific research. Commerce of all kinds came to rely heavily upon statistics, uniform commercial laws, and exact schedules. Meanwhile, the establishment of truly effective police forces indirectly forced the transformation of spontaneous fistfights into organized matches and, even more significantly for the bonds of modern society, the metamorphosis of bystanders into spectators. The etymology of calisthenics (‘beautiful strength’) reminds us of the immense popularity, long ago in the West but persisting until quite recently in totalitarian Russia and China, of mass workouts. Even eugenics, a regrettably malleable discipline, has, in spite of its current disfavor, saddled us with standardized intelligence tests. All of these developments were thought to be scientific, but they have nothing to do with science and everything to do with system. According to vulgar error, system and science are practically synonymous.

As Malcolm Gladwell’s essay shows, the idea that professional team sports are actually systematic is ridiculous: in practice, the coaches themselves make too big a difference, and are probably far less fungible than their players. But because the games that teams play follow very specific rules, athletic excellence can look more like the transcendence of those rules – the system glorified – than uniquely personal achievement. The mistake rests on much the same thinking that holds that great artists transcend the rules laid down by the academies.

Transcendence is always attractive. It’s especially attractive to businessmen because by and large most large business enterprises really do run as systems, however imperfectly, and as such they naturally crush the quirky and the idiosyncratic in the name of remote and apparently meaningless principles, thus making Dilberts of their more intelligent employees. Watching the executives line up for their signed copies of coaching memoirs, we must ask why managers see the need to motivate their workers. Why isn’t salary incentive enough? Could we say that there is something wrong about the very structure in which workers are expected to function? Answers to these questions must reflect the fact that the ideal system has no irrelevant parts – distractions such as vacation plans, romantic longings, or ambition for one’s children.


Is hypocrisy phony or stupid? That’s always a good question. Hypocritical people usually have a soupçon of their pretensions and inconsistencies, and that makes them phoneys. A generation of hypocrites, though, can commit a society to unthinking stupidity.

Perhaps the appeal of lessons drawn from team sports is simply atmospheric: workers who are already inclined to think competitively will deck their cubicle walls with lofty photographs of racing yachts and Alpine rock faces, bearing punchy imperative legends like “Strive!” and “Determination.”. They will readily identify with players capable of exceptional physical stamina. They will drown out the fluorescent drone overhead with earnestly recited Steps and Mantras.

For all their talk, I’m not sure that either businessmen or professional athletes really cherish competition. What they cherish is victory, falling back on competition only when somebody else is winning. True competition is for amateurs. In business, moreover (as in animal courtship), competition tends to benefit third parties more directly than it does the competitors, who may well suffer broken antlers or hypertension.

Rivalry is more like it. Rivalry is personal, gut-driven. It usually looks pointless to outsiders, and rarely serves any practical purpose. Rivals usually require little outside motivation, but this very authenticity, if you will, is a drawback, as rivalries have a way of degenerating into the ‘senseless violence’ of vendettas. Pushed hard or far enough, rivals will throw the rules to the winds and fight dirty. It’s much safer to invoke competition, and the ideas of fair play for which Anglo-Saxon sports are world-famous. But isn’t there something ironically thuggish in the way business rivals club each other with lawsuits?

Even the idea of competition, however, undermines character and inverts motivation. To the extent that an athlete is physically blessed, character defects won’t interfere with athletic achievement; character, like competition, is for amateurs, who need all the help they can get. In business, character is far more problematic and potentially troublesome. Insofar as character is synonymous with ‘repute,’ it can make or break a business. But the stubborn side of character easily gets in the way of success. After all, business consists very largely of negotiation, and requires a readiness to compromise that, to someone with a lot of ‘character,’ might look like 'cutting corners,' or worse. And as for motivation, most workers are kept to their desks by virtual extortion. While no one is forced to take any particular job, almost everyone is obliged to take some kind of job, somewhere – and then to hold onto it. ‘Motivation’ that’s principally made up of anxiety is better called ‘fear’ or ‘dread.’

Businessmen and coaches trot out military metaphors so regularly that it’s easy to start looking at war as the ultimate competition. But if military prowess certainly calls athletic skills into play, it would be very foolish to judge military achievements by athletic standards. If team sports organize and restrain social violence (and I’m convinced that they do and that for this reason they’re vital), then by the same token they take the war out of warfare. First of all, nobody is supposed to die; optimally, no one will even be injured. Second, the accidents of war have been eliminated. Most sports allow only a very few actions and rely heavily upon rules that either penalize or ignore nonconforming behavior. By comparison with most human activity, sports are very neatly focused, and while this in itself probably means very little to the people who follow sports, it greatly simplifies their pastime of determining excellence. It also flattens opportunities for genuine heroism.

Business – whatever kind of business you’ve got in mind – obviously bears a greater resemblance to war than to sports. For all the simple talk of winning, both are extremely untidy and full of surprises – mostly unpleasant, disappointing, and (although it sounds oxymoronic to say so), unexciting surprises. Victory is such a flexible notion, an objective so open to perpetual re-interpretation, that it rarely amounts to more than subjective satisfaction. It would be very hard to find objective satisfactions in the military victories of Louis XIV, or, with respect to his less fortunate descendant Louis XVI, in the French contribution to the victory of the American Revolution, which absolutely bankrupted his government and sent him on the path to the guillotine. Conversely, the ‘defeat’ of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., in the Standard Oil Case, seems to have done his pocketbook no harm at all. Victories can be dangerous, and defeats, if inglorious, quite comfortable. These ambiguities are altogether foreign to team sports, where winning is indelibly defined and always the goal.

Phony or stupid, hypocrisy is invariably insufficiently critical. It really doesn’t know whereof it speaks. That’s what makes sermons from sports so unintentionally funny. It’s also what makes taking such talk at face value a sure waste of time.

*The New York Review of Books, February 24, 2000: p. 33.

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