How the most unlikely of people in improbable circumstances can become extraordinary

John Amaechi OBE is a psychologist, New York Times best-selling author (Man in the Middle), Research Fellow at the University of East London and social entrepreneur. John is also a former NBA player and sought-after broadcaster for media channels such as ESPN, CNN and BBC. In June 2011, John was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to sport and also his ongoing involvement in charitable work. He is living proof that the most unlikely of people in the most improbable circumstances can become extraordinary. John keeps budding basketball players, friends and clients in the know via his website, Facebook,  Twitter updates (@JohnAmaechi), and on LinkedIn.  The interview was conducted by Soma Analytics‘ CEO and Co-Founder Johann Huber (@mangohammock). Soma Analytics is also the company behind the Getuberyou email subscription service and webshop.


Johann: John, how would you introduce yourself?

John: Fundamentally, I am a psychologist. I have a number of different things that I do on a day-to-day basis from coaching to meeting elite individuals in lots of different areas: the corporate world but also some athletes. Outside of that, I work more broadly with companies and organisations that have intractable “people problems”. So I work with schools that have problems with student engagement, schools and school districts especially in America, or companies that have issues with their leadership, recruitment or retention. Basically I try to apply my education as a psychologist and my practical experience as an NBA player to help organisations to create high-performance teams.


Johann: Professional Basketball player and psychologist is not the most usual combination, how did that happen?

John: This is what I always wanted to do. I knew I’d be a psychologist when I was seven years old. It all goes back to my childhood, I watched my mother at work. My mother was a family doctor, and I used to go on visits with her when she would go and visit people. I watched my mum visit people who were very sick. I would sit living rooms waiting for my mother to come down after dealing with the people who needed her. Sometimes I would be sat with just one person, a spouse or a family member, other times, it would be an entire family sat around. Even at seven years old I could feel the stress–I remember telling my mum that the air was “squashing” me. I knew that something was terribly wrong. Then my mother would come downstairs and start to talk to the family and somehow in the way she interacted with them, she managed to make the people feel like they could cope and manage; that they could breathe again. I thought that was the most impressive thing she did. And I knew it was what I wanted to do.


Johann: How did you then go about from having a dream of becoming a psychologist to actually becoming one?

John: Back in those days you didn’t really have an option. Nowadays, you can do advanced courses in psychology. Back then you couldn’t. If you wanted to be a psychologist you had to study biology, chemistry, and physics. It didn’t make any sense to me and I hated the idea, but I ended up having to do it anyway. Quite frankly, it was a stage in my life that I was just not doing well at school. I loved education, yet didn’t like school. I did increasingly poorly at school as I got older. Luckily for me, that was the same stage that I discovered basketball. It gave me a good reason not to study! However, basketball also became my second opportunity to study in another country. A fresh start. I ended up going to America, I went to high school for an additional year in America. After that I went to Vanderbilt University for a year, which didn’t work out from a basketball perspective, but it was a very good for my education. I then went to Penn State and it worked out academically and basketball-wise. I was definitely distracted from my psychology studies when I played basketball professionally. I would study whilst eating!


Johann: Now you are in the unique position to be able to combine your skills in psychology with your experience from the NBA and apply it to business problems. When did you find out that this combination is a real asset?

John: We talk about the idea that one of the markers that differentiates a “group of individuals” from a “team” is that in a group of individuals, people refer to each other by status: what you can do is why you are important. Whereas in a team, people look at each other not just for their description or function, but because they want to look for another layer deeper than that. They want to discover another way that this person can have a role and play a part in the team.

I always relate this back to the time that I was playing for Orlando Magic. On the plane, seats are assigned by team loyalty. The best seats on the plane, go to the most professional players. As I get on the plane I am ushered to sit on the top table. All alone. Normally two veterans would take this table. Here I am at this table thinking, “What have I done wrong?” These new guys must hate me because if they want me to sit alone at this table so that 3 veterans have to sit elsewhere, I surely must have done something wrong? I am worried about this. We take off and as we get to 10,000ft a new player–a rookie–whom I haven’t yet spoken to comes over. So he comes over and sits directly opposite me. I close my laptop and he looks and me and says, “Meech” (that was my nickname back then). “Meech, my wife doesn’t like my girlfriend”.

There it was. This is why I got the table! The team wants me to score 9/10 points a game which is not vital for the team this year, but, more importantly, they know that I am the guy that people can talk to about their problems. I had a role that was bigger, being the guy that people can open up to, not just that I could score 9 points a game. That’s the reason I was picked for the game and that’s the reason why they picked that seat for me. The good part about being a basketball player before you are a psychologist is that the stories I get to tell tend to be a little bit more exciting!

ORLANDO, FL - 2000: John Amaechi #13 of the Orlando Magic poses for a portrait during media day at the TD Waterhouse Arena in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2007 NBAE (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

ORLANDO, FL – 2000: John Amaechi #13 of the Orlando Magic poses for a portrait during media day at the TD Waterhouse Arena in Orlando, Florida.

Johann: The big question now obviously every leader now has is how can you put that into practice in everyday work, not only with professional NBA players?

John: I think that most leaders don’t even recognise that. I think most leaders think great teams are made up of people who help optimise their job. If that is what you understand as a leader then you will never create the most dynamic type of team. That knowledge in itself is powerful because it doesn’t exist in many places. When most people talk about leadership they only want the people who are the most productive. You should go further and look to the core skills that they have and they can deliver for you. Maybe there is more that a person has to offer than their exterior or their credentials?

This works on a number of different levels. This works because additional jobs and additional roles are being filled on a team that would otherwise have been left unfulfilled. My teammate on the plane wouldn’t have been able to continue to grow if he didn’t have someone to talk to. That’s one part. The second part is the fact that I sat there worrying that these guys don’t know me, that these guys have made assumptions about me; they don’t like or know me. Instead, I learned in the first few words of that conversation that he very clearly knew me. I learned that our team leader had taken the time and energy to look deeper and to see more of me. That in itself is a team-enhancing property.

A week ago I was with a group of surgeons. All of them work in the same room but have significant interpersonal difficulties. These people were all immensely talented individuals. I realised after a while that they were referring to each other as “Doctor” and “Mr.”. It then suddenly dawned on me that it wasn’t a sign of respect, they didn’t know each other’s first names! These people had been working together for over 16 years and they didn’t know the first names of some of their colleagues. You can’t possibly be a team if you haven’t taken the time to look deeper than the title…


Johann: Would you then say that one of the main responsibilities of leadership is actually establishing an environment where people start looking deeper?

John: Of course! Leadership is an orientation it’s not a title. That orientation is certainly towards creating a culture where people can best perform. This doesn’t just mean looking at performance indicators: leaders are stewards of the culture.


Johann: I guess one could draw parallels between basketball coaches and CEOs? Do you have examples of when you learned a lot about leadership from a coach?

John: Yes! I mean I was very fortunate because I had a couple of coaches in the NBA who were outstanding. One thing they all had in common was that they were very receptive for the needs of the team but also the individual player. My experience is that there is a different type of leader for every different type of person. We are fooled into thinking that leaders come in a couple of different categories and I, every once in a while, have a scan of what the current comments are on the topic. Most of the popular books on leadership talk about leadership types. Leadership is as individual as the person they lead.  The best leaders are totally authentic to who they are. They aren’t an introvert trying to be Donald Trump or Richard Branson. They are leading in a way that is true to their core. If you are trying to be something you’re not people will see through you very quickly.

Once, we had a Friday night game in Orlando and a Saturday afternoon game in Sacramento– those were always really grueling. After arriving at the hotel in Sacramento at 2 am the coach spoke together with the manager, who got up and said: “Right guys we have got a shooting round tomorrow at 9 am”. Absolute silence. We all then headed to our rooms to get some sleep. Our rooms were adjacent and I could hear the phone in the room next to mine ringing. Afterwards, my phone rings. It’s the manager saying, “Practice has been cancelled at 9am. We will have breakfast together at 11 and then we will go to the game”. I had such a sense of relief that I fell asleep immediately and I woke up the next day and I just felt better. You know? I went to breakfast before talking through the tactics for the game. I walk over to the boss and say, “Why did you cancel practice?” He said, “Well, I heard you”. That was the thing! Nobody grumbled, sighed or said anything. He said, “I realised that when I heard you, that I needed the practice more than you needed the practice.” He knew what the team needed without asking. I think this is a really fundamental thing…

ORLANDO, FL - 2000: John Amaechi #13 of the Orlando Magic attempts a dunk against the Toronto Raptors during a game played at TD Waterhouse Arena in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2006 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

ORLANDO, FL – 2000: John Amaechi #13 of the Orlando Magic on his way to dunk against the Toronto Raptors during a game played at TD Waterhouse Arena in Orlando, Florida.

Johann: You said your coach focussed on minor details so that everything could be perfect. Good enough just isn’t enough. Could say that was your personal recipe for success too?

John: Believe me when I say that there have been plenty of downs in my life, plenty of mistakes. There have been so many mistakes! But, I do think that one of the things that I really focus on is the idea of “Paying the FEE“.  I did a video about it a couple of years ago. The idea is that focus, effort, execution is the fundament of real success. This is the bedrock of extraordinary. People treat success like its winning the lottery. It is picking the right numbers at the right moment when the jackpot is biggest. That’s not it! Success and extraordinary are far more mundane. Extraordinary is deciding every day whether to lie in for an extra five minutes in the morning, leave your bed a mess or to get up and make your bed. That sounds weird, but it’s one of the factors that is linked to the overall success that you get. I don’t think anyone truly understands why that is! It’s also applicable to when you have a meeting. Through all the studies out there, we know that after 5 minutes into a meeting the people who don’t have to present phase out. They are thinking about their next work task and not this one. The focus part is crucial. Imagine what would happen if in every meeting we pay attention? What if you are the one person that spots the error in the slide deck that you are going to use with the client tomorrow? This is applicable to any club or role. Execution is fundamental to being extraordinary. And it’s all I am interested in.


Johann: I know many people who say, “Oh you are so lucky because you achieved something”, but, in the end, they don’t see the 20 failed attempts behind each success. After each rejection or failure, you have to dust yourself off and try again. Would you agree when I say that luck is a direct function of the number of opportunities you are able to create?

John: I’m possibly less charitable than you. When someone tells you that you are lucky and that you have achieved something, it is what people who don’t pay the FEE (focus, effort execution) say to people who do pay the FEE just to make themselves feel better. If you pay the FEE and you achieve something the element of luck in that–you can’t deny that a part of life is fortuitous happening — is small. Every day you did the right thing that would lead you inexorably to this outcome, whether it be sooner or later. Inexorably you paid for it by sacrificing things that would have been easier to do and that you would have rather done. That’s what I mean when I say when someone else who doesn’t pay the FEE faces you with this, what they are doing is attributing the same level of luck and good fortune that would have to happen to them if they had done the right thing? But it’s the same thing.


Johann: You work a lot with both public and private organisations. What are the problems that we face today in the way we work and what do we have to do to actively the future of work?

John: The thing that makes me realise that I am in the right job is that when people ask me this question. I get all excited! I think there are massive problems in organisations and some problems stem from where we were in the past, where the interpersonal aspect of how people worked was less important.

In the early ages of capitalism the challenges from other companies and the competition was lower and less fierce. There were no emerging markets providing cheaper alternatives. A lot of times, in terms of motivation in the workplace, it really was extrinsic. It was as simple as: this is an employee’s’ life and we don’t want to have to recruit somebody new because that is expensive, so we will just pay them a little less what it would cost us to replace them. This way, employees were forced to stay even though they were miserable! Back then, leadership didn’t really exist. It was more the management of the human factor of production and its efficient deployment. The connection between what the person does and the impact the individual had on the outcome didn’t exist. The cultural element just didn’t work.

Now, we are in a situation where the competition element is unbelievably high, where the difference between total success and abject failure is often minuscule.  Saatchi and Saatchi’s CEO Kevin Roberts has coined this SUPERVUCA environment of complete volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. All of a sudden people are having to completely rethink the way they do things. Employees are also far more sophisticated in thinking. Now we have got an environment where people can function differently regardless of how intelligent they actually are. We create this chaotic work environment where actual outcomes are assaulted on a daily basis by poor management, by a lack of resilience, by no support, by feelings of resentment — no wonder people can’t achieve their outcomes!

The problem is that dealing with these issues is a question of really, cohesively changing your culture and developing a set of leaders who are willing to be stewards of this new culture. This, in spite of the fact that you have to work with some employees who have done a decent job for you for a long time and really have no interest in the change of stakes for the company. From my perspective it is a really amazing, chaotic situation, but what you need is some clear ways that it can be made radically better. By giving people individual responsibilities and a sense of what the vision of the company is you can help an organisation become congruent. That’s now leadership and not management.


Johann: What would be the one thing that readers should take away from reading this blog post?

John: The easy thing to remember is what my mother told me and what I believe in — I adore it as a philosophy. She said, “The most unlikely of people in improbable circumstance can become extraordinary”.  My mother wasn’t just referring to a fat kid in Stockport trying to play in the NBA, but also an athlete trying to be a psychologist! Many people in workplaces and many people who are trying to aspire to greatness feel shackled by the idea that they and their dreams are ordinary, unlikely and improbable. This makes sense if you are willing to pay the fee, to say this mantra every day and to think it in every moment and opportunity. Do I practice or do I not? Do I drink another bottle of wine or do I not? Every decision suddenly becomes crystal clear as to whether it takes you towards extraordinary or walks you away from it. That’s hopefully what people will get when they read this.


The header image is courtesy of Amaechi Performance Systems

The image of John posing in Orlando Magic tricot is a photo by Fernando Media / NBAE via Getty Images with permission of Amaechi Performance Systems

The image  of John dunking in against Toronto is a photo by Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images with permission of Amaechi Performance Systems


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