The Power of Both — How Mastering Competing Skills Will Set You Apart

Coach Tony
Nov 23, 2016 · 6 min read

People have a blindspot that could be a huge opportunity for those of you who are ambitious and open minded.

The blindspot is that most people gravitate toward being one-dimensional. They pick a strength and they ride it at the expense of all else.

But the blindspot is that they eventually become blind to the idea that they could also become proficient in complementary and even competing skills.

Let me give you an example of a one-dimensional leader.

In college basketball, there is a hall of fame coach who is famous for yelling. He’s also famous for throwing chairs. If you’re a basketball fan, that’s probably all I need to tell you (hint: I’m talking about Bobby Knight).

Obviously, he was successful — that’s how he got into the hall of fame. But he also got fired from his job. A video leaked of him choking a player at practice. That turned out to be too much.

Bobby Knight mastered a skill and rode that skill as far as it would take him. And that’s pretty far.

As he might describe it, his skill was teaching through being emphatic. Or others might say authoritarian jerk. Or abusive asshole. In any case, it worked for him and it’s not like he hid it from his recruits or coworkers. Everyone knew what they were in for.

But in Knight’s story we can also see that he clearly road the skill to its limit. Getting fired was that limit.

There’s a level beyond Bobby Knight. Another basketball coach, this time one at the professional level.

This coach, Gregg Popovich, is capable of yelling. He carries a no-nonsense, hard-nosed approach. Here’s a quote about a recent game (his team, the Spurs, won):

“That was a pathetic performance on the part of the Spurs. I thought we showed a lack of humility, a lack of respect for the opponent, a very pathetic performance at both ends of the court, both in execution and in grunt, in fiber, in desire. It was an awful performance. Oh, and they deserved to win the basketball game. I forgot to say that.”

Pretty direct, right?

The thing though is that he also carries a huge reputation for caring about his players — and showing it. Here’s one story about a regular act of kindness for one of his top players:

Gregg Popovich would go to a Zagat-approved restaurant on the road with his staff, and sometimes, toward the end of the meal, he would ask the waiter for a small carrot cake to go.

He would then leave the package outside Tim Duncan’s hotel door, and Popovich’s original thinking was simple. He knew Duncan loved carrot cake.

I’m pretty sure every basketball fan would say that Popovich is on a level above Knight. He has more championships, more victories, more success at a higher level, and, critically, has maintained the respect of his players, coworkers and community.

Popovich went beyond “emphatic teaching.” He combined two things: directness and kindness.

His players know that his critical feedback is coming from someone who is thoughtful and caring. That actually makes his critical feedback even stronger.

As a coach, I tend to work with leaders who are too soft.

I think this is because this type of leader is more common — they are dragging their feet on tough decisions because they are afraid of being wrong.

And it’s also partly because it’s my story — and so we must attract each other. I got over being too soft (for the most part) and so I like helping other people do the same.

This too-soft-leader represents someone who is the opposite of Bobby Knight. They have too much caring and not enough directness. When they finally crack, their version of directness is abrupt, out of place and jarring.

But you could do both!

You could treat kindness and directness as skills in your toolset. Then bring out each one as appropriate.

People struggle with this because they think of kindness as a personality characteristic. That’s how this particular blindspot develops. Many people with growth mindsets around skill, still have fixed mindsets around personality.

So, lets go deeper on the idea of combining skills.

There’s already a common idea that combining two complementary skills can be valuable.

A lot of us heard this first from the cartoonist behind Dilbert. He explained that the secret to his success was simply that he was a 90th percentile artist (which isn’t that great) and a 90th percentile comedian (which also isn’t that great). But the combination made for a successful comic strip artist.

To go back to basketball, we’re seeing something special with Steph Curry (two-time MVP) who has combined ball-handling with 3-point shooting to be the first top-tier three point shooter who can create his own shot. Traditionally, the best three point shooters had to rely on their team to create open shots for them using passing and screening.

In the 2016 season, Steph Curry extended the single-season record for three-pointers from 286 to 402.

Comedy and art are not in conflict. Neither are shooting and ball handling. These are examples of complementary combinations.

But, and hopefully this isn’t too subtle, there’s a whole world of skills that people don’t combine because they are perceived as being in opposition.

That’s the kindness/directness example from above. That’s probably the most common.

To show you how powerful the resistance is to being a Popovich, I went looking for leaders who were defined by positive spirit.

The first two that came to mind were Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Richard Branson of Virgin.

My understanding is that Branson mostly says yes and then relies on his team to sweep up after him by saying, “Actually, the answer is no.”

And similarly, my understanding of Zappos is that the overall company management was stronger while Hsieh’s co-founder, Alfred Lin, was there. Lin was the no-man in that pairing.

Both of these leaders leaned one-dimensional and made up for it by having the right partner. That’s a great strategy with one exception: finding great partners is hard as hell. And finding those partners is exceptionally hard to do on a timeline.

Meanwhile, skill development is easy. Well, it’s straightforward at least.

A famous Venture Capitalist, Mike Maples, explains his job as being non-consensus right.

He has to make the right decision, obviously. But the biggest winners are when he’s the only person who sees that decision.

And so, what I’ve shared with you above is a strategy that I believe is non-consensus right.

Lots of people will tell you that you should eat more vegetables, sleep more, set priorities for your day, cut out multi-tasking, etc. Those strategies work. But all they’ll do is help you keep up with every other ambitious self-improver.

What if you want to leap frog your peers? Well, then you have to pick a strategy that works that nobody else will try. In other words, you need to be non-consensus right.

So take a look at skills that are framed as being in competition. And look at these competitions with a critical eye. Very often, they aren’t mutually exclusive.

Because I’ve spent so much time around software, I’m most familiar with one other false framing. It has to do with a tradeoff between speed and code quality.

And it’s often embodies as a tension between Hackers and Engineers. As examples, the Facebook hacker culture embraces the motto “move fast and break things” and that’s at odds with the Google “heavy engineering” culture which moves less fast, but also never breaks.

The problem though is that these are false framings. The main determinant for speed of development is problem scope. Small problems can be solved both quickly and well. A small number of companies saw this and were able to take advantage. Most notably, this is embodied by the small team at 37signals with the motto “Build half a product, not a half-ass product.”

Do you have any examples of skills that are commonly believed to be in conflict, but are secretly complementary?

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Coach Tony

Written by

Evangelist for great coaches and excellent personal development advice. CEO/Founder of Publisher of Better Humans & Better Programming.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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