Barbelled Coaching: How Living on the Extremes Can Make You a Better Coach

Generally speaking, there are two ways to be average.

The first way is to take the average of 48, 50, and 52. Add them all up, divide by 3, and you get 50. On a scale of 0-100, you’re right in the middle of the bell curve.

The other way is to take the average of 0 and 100.

100 plus 0 equals 100. Divide that by 2 and you get 50.

Different process. Same result.

Don’t worry, that’s all the math we’ll need to do today.

The False Allure of Predictability

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from people in sports about people in leadership positions is that the person is “unpredictable”.

At first glance, this complaint makes sense. We like consistency and enjoy the psychological safety of *basically* knowing what we’re going to get each and every day.

When I think of a predictable person, I think about Mr. Rogers. Always kind. Always generous. Never a shadow of a doubt that he was going to show the utmost love and care for the children who joined him on his show.

But it’s not always a beautiful day in the neighborhood for coaches. Rather, we live in a dynamic, ever-changing world that requires high levels of adaptability.

As leaders of our team, we need to consider whether this approach is maximally effective towards advancing our team towards our shared goals.

We value predictability because it brings a certain level of certainty to our lives that we crave. But maybe this is misguided. Rather than trying to become predictable, maybe the unpredictability is best–just ask Silicon Valley and Hillary Clinton.

Will that autonomous car hit me?

Imagine a world in which a pedestrian gets killed by an autonomous car.

In our present world, there’s a mutual agreement between drivers and pedestrians about when it’s okay to walk out in front of a car. We call this the “right of way”.

But (as people much smarter than me have pointed out), this right of way could be thrown off equilibrium with the advent of autonomous cars. Imagine you’re late to a meeting and need to cross the street now. You scan the road and spot one of the new self-driving cars. You do some quick mental math and decide that the car will have enough time to stop for you should you run for it. You dash across the street, the car in question slams on the brakes and comes just short of clipping you off the road in some weird game of Frogger.

You breathe a sigh of relief, but honestly, you knew that would happen. The car is programmed to stop for anything that gets in its’ path.

In other words, it’s hackable.

Becoming Unhackable

This is the exact situation British ad-man Rory Sutherland predicts in Alchemy. He points out that it won’t take long before people figure out that they can hack the autonomous car and suddenly this incredible innovation will be rendered almost completely useless.

Well, as a man who has spent more than three decades working with consumer psychology in advertising, Sutherland has a solution: he believes the car needs to have an element of randomness and unpredictability programmed into it.

Which in our situation means that someone’s going to have to get pasted by one of these autonomous cars.

Think back to the right of way. The main thing keeping pedestrians from walking out in front of cars is the uncertainty about whether the driver would stop or not. The split-second risk assessment usually results in a decision to wait.

But in a world where the cars can be hacked due to algorithmic predictability, a component of randomness actually becomes essential to maintain the successful operation of our roads.

Politics, too…

This idea of being “hackable” is not isolated to technology and things that run on code. No, Rory Sutherland has pointed out that hyper-rationality is actually a hackable fault of man as well.

From Sutherland’s Alchemy:

“Now, as reasonable people, you’re going to hate me saying this, and I don’t feel good saying it myself. But, for all the man’s faults, I think Donald Trump can solve many problems that the more rational Hillary Clinton simply wouldn’t have been able to address. I don’t admire him, but he is a decision maker from a different mould. For example, both candidates wanted manufacturing jobs to return to the United States. Hillary’s solution was logical – engagement in tripartite trade negotiations with Mexico and Canada. But Donald simply said, ‘We’re going to build a wall, and the Mexicans are going to pay.’ ‘Ah,’ you say. ‘But he’s never going to build that wall.’ And I agree with you – I think it highly unlikely that a wall will be built, and even less likely that the unlucky Mexicans will agree to pay for it. But here’s the thing: he may not need to build the wall to achieve his trade ambitions – he just needs people to believe that he might. Similarly, he doesn’t need to repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement – he just needs to raise it as a possibility. Irrational people are much more powerful than rational people, because their threats are so much more convincing.

Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life, page 12

Sutherland’s point isn’t political. Rather, he’s making an argument that the “rational” thing is often predictable. And anything that’s predictable is hackable.

Changing Course or Changing the Weather

A rational leader suggests changing course to avoid a storm. An irrational one can change the weather. Being slightly bonkers can be a good negotiating strategy: being rational means you are predictable, and being predictable makes you weak. Hillary thinks like an economist, while Donald is a game theorist, and is able to achieve with one tweet what would take Clinton four years of congressional infighting. That’s alchemy; you may hate it, but it works.”

Rory Sutherland, Alchemy

Leadership is not conducive to rationality. Leadership is highly complex, dynamic, and ever-changing–not exactly the place for consistent, predictable behavior.

The Barbelled Approach to Coaching

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb discusses his approach to investing. Called the barbel approach, Taleb is both hyper-conservative and hyper-aggressive. 85-90% of his money goes to extremely safe investments — things like Treasury Bills. The remaining 10-15% are put into things with extreme positive upside — think Venture Capital investments. In doing this, he protects himself from being in the middle of the bell curve and suffering massive loss at a rare event with unforeseen consequences — a Black Swan.

But as Taleb points out later in the book, this Barbelled approach can be applied more broadly. Which is how I’d like to close out this article.

As I’ve written about before in The Coaching Paradox, many of the world’s best coaches exhibit simultaneous (seemingly) opposing traits. To use Taleb’s term, they have a “barbelled” coaching style and personality.

Take this graph of Bill Belichick, for example:

Bill Belichick's coaching style on an inverted bell curve

Like most great coaches, Belichick exhibits both extremes on the hero-villain spectrum. In the minds of many, Bill Belichick is a hero directly responsible for more than a handful of Super Bowl rings. To others he’s a villain shrouded in controversy and scandal. Very few people perceive him as something in the middle.

Belichick is “barbelled”, not dwelling in the middle of the bell curve but rather finding himself on the tail ends.

Now let’s take this a step further…

Barbelled Leadership Styles

Let’s put “leadership style” on a scale of 0-100 (it’s not perfect, but bear with me).

At 0, let’s put an ultra-hands-off approach. Let the team organically emerge, don’t speak up, let them do their thing.

At 100, let’s put the complete opposite. Micro-managing down to the smallest detail. Total control. Authoritarian style.

Most coaches choose to lead somewhere in the middle. Let’s call this 50. They’re not authoritarian, nor are they completely free-spirited.

For most coaches, they choose to average 50 by never deviating too far from the mean. This is natural because it’s comfortable. As I wrote at the start, we don’t like uncertainty and therefore think that avoiding uncertainty (and thereby becoming “predictable”) is the best approach for leading our teams.

But maybe that’s not right. Maybe, as Brett Bartholomew taught me, leaders must embrace the “dark side” of coaching if we’re going to do this coaching thing well.

Coaches who embrace a barbelled approach average 50 by finding the mean of a lot of days at 100, and a similar amount at 0.

In all fairness, I don’t know if the barbelled approach is better for coaches. Is psychological volatility a good thing? Is unpredictability useful when trying to lead your team?

Finishing an article with more questions than I started with is always uncomfortable, but that suggests there might be something here.

Thanks for reading.