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What does Magic Johnson's baby skyhook have to do with leadership development?

What does Magic Johnson's baby skyhook have to do with leadership development?


In my last article I described how moderation contributes to leadership effectiveness, in part because it helps leaders become more versatile in the way they express their skills. The idea is that by staying in the mid-range between two opposing skills, like ‘Forceful’ vs ‘Enabling,’ or ‘Strategic’ vs ‘Operational’, that leaders can better access or ‘flirt with’ a broader range of styles. This mastering of opposite skills leads to versatility, because it creates a broader skill repertoire.

This principle reminded me of an analogy to the sports world, one that’s close to my heart, which I’d like to share.

In particular, I started thinking about how a particular shooting style developed by one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, is an interesting illustration of the concept of versatility.


First let me tell you how this counterintuitive analogy came to mind.

I grew up in the 1980s on a rural property north of Toronto. When I was a kid, believe it or not, our farmhouse didn’t have the ability to connect with cable TV service. It was rabbit ears or nothing. So one summer, my older brother saved up all his grass cutting money, and paid for the installation of a satellite dish. Workers came and poured a huge concrete pad behind the house, and on top of it installed a a dish that looked like a bird bath for a Teradactyl, that could swivel on a post at an angle pointing to the sky. The idea was that by moving the dish using a controller inside the house, you could align the dish with various orbiting satellites that broadcast a range of TV stations.

Not my actual house as a kid, but this was what the dish looked like. 

Once installed, one of the new stations we could tune into was ‘Prime Ticket’, a regional sports network that included southern California, and which broadcasted all the Lakers' home games. (If you’re wondering why a team from Los Angeles is called the 'Lakers,' it’s because they were previously located in Minnesota, ‘the land of 10,000 lakes.’)

As often as I could, I would tune into Prime Ticket for the games, often on Sunday nights. The games were played at a cavernous and always seemingly dark arena called the Great Western Forum. They were narrated by Lakers announcers Chick Hearn and Stu Lantz. Hearn was famous for many phrases, but my favourite was how he indicated when a game was out of reach for one team: ‘ well folks, this game is in the refrigerator, the butter’s getting hard, the eggs are cooling, and the jello’s jiggling’. Being Los Angeles, the land of ‘cool,’ everybody showed up t0 the game late, and most of the seats were empty for the first 40 minutes of play. Celebrities peppered the landscape in the stands, the most prominent of which was Jack Nicholson who had courtside season tickets and almost always attended.

A picture of Chick Hearn, illustrating is famous 'this game is in the refrigerator' phrase.

Now around the time I started watching the games, a great era began for the Lakers, one that involved a style of play that was so entertaining it was dubbed ‘Showtime.’ The style was fast paced, high scoring, and often peppered with no-look passes and slam dunks.

Accompanying this ‘Showtime’ branding, the team boasted a compelling, almost theatrical cast of characters, each unique in their own way. The leader and accelerant of the Lakers’ offensive spectacle was Magic Johnson, who at 6 feet 9 inches was extremely tall to play his position of point guard, a role that typically involved mostly dribbling, passing and shooting, while staying far out on the perimeter, away from the basket.

Magic Johnson

Alongside him were other notable players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who was over 7 feet tall, and at that time the highest scorer in the league’s history, though nearing retirement and the age of 40.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar

There was also Byron Scott, who played guard, and when he approached the hoop to dunk the ball, seemed to be able to jump so high that he could tickle one of the Lakers’ championship banners hanging in the darkness of the rafters.

Byron Scott

There was James Worthy who moved with a smooth and regal elegance in the position of small forward. He often wore old-school safety goggles like Kareem, and had enormous hands, so large he often palmed the ball and waved it around in front of defenders like he was keeping candy away from a child.

James Worthy

There was Michael Cooper, a sinewy, muscular yet rail thin guard who was distinctive for his defensive play but also because he insisted on pulling his socks right up to his knees.

Michael Cooper

There was also AC Green, a rangy, hustling forward whose skill breadth included rebounding and defense, and sometimes shooting, and who was known for his devout Christianity, and the fact that he began and ended his career as a bachelor (he also abstained from smoking or drinking, to the point that he refused to spray champagne when the Lakers won a championship).

AC Green

Corralling all these talents (at least at the time I was watching) was their coach Pat Riley, always well dressed (exclusively Armani it was said), and who insisted on combing his product-filled dark hair straight back, as if he had emerged from an M&A deal on Wall Street (the movie ‘Wall Street’ came out around that time, and Riley’s look was similar to the character Gordon Gekko in that movie).

Pat Riley (L) talking to Michael Cooper (R)

Relating the story back to leadership development

Word has it that when Magic joined the Lakers, the elder statesman Kareem taught him his signature shot – the skyhook. This involved receiving the ball as an offensive player with your back close to the basket, then turning sideways while jumping in the air, and tossing the ball towards the net from high above your head using the arm furthest away from the hoop. It was a borderline indefensible shot that Kareem had used to great effect in his career to become the best scorer in history.

Various images of Kareem Abdul Jabbar shooting the skyhook.

Magic eventually adopted the shot, and started using his own version of it. He called it the baby skyhook, or sometimes the junior skyhook, in respectful deference to his elder teacher.

What does this have to do with leadership development?

My point is that Magic found a way to master opposing skills, and therefore show versatility, which no doubt made him a more effective basketball player.

When he was growing up, playing the position of guard, he would have learned many skills related to passing, dribbling and shooting. These skills would have been opposite to (or in other words uncorrelated with) those that Kareem had learned growing up playing the centre position. Kareem would have focused instead on learning how to score and play defense while standing close to the basket. You could consider these guard vs forward skill sets opposite ends of the same spectrum. The more time you spent learning one, the less you’d spend learning the other.

However, Magic broke this convention by finding a way to access and express skills that seemed contrary. He learned to complement his guard skills with those applicable to a different position than the one he played. The net result was that in addition to being able to pass, dribble, and shoot from long distance, skills that fueled the Showtime offense, he could also now catch the ball close to the basket, and using his tall 6 foot 9 inch frame, turn around and shoot a baby skyhook over what would often be a shorter defender. In short, he added versatility to his game. If instead Magic was extreme in his style, looking to just pass, shoot, or dribble regardless of the situation, he would never have indulged in learning an ‘opposite’ skill. That baby skyhook skill turned out to be so valuable that it won the team Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals, a championship series the Lakers would go on to clinch.

Magic Johnson's game winning shot in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals.

In my last article, I discussed the need for leaders to show versatility. For example, I described two different skill dimensions that leaders could focus on, Forceful vs Enabling, and Strategic vs Operational (developed by Rob Kaiser). In these two dimensions, the skills are in opposition, in tension with one another. The more forceful a leader, the harder it is for them to show enabling behaviours. The more strategic a leader, the less interested they may be in operational or tactical concerns. These skills are in opposition just like the guard vs forward skills I mentioned earlier.

However, some research now finds that if leaders can express skills at both ends of a spectrum, for example if they can  be both forceful AND enabling, or strategic AND operational, then this enhances their effectiveness. Rob Kaiser calls this the ‘mastery of opposites.’ In my last article I suggested that one way leaders can master these opposites is by moderating their behaviour. If a leader expresses moderate forcefulness, then the range of their possible behaviour can access or ‘flirt with’ enabling behaviours on the other side of the spectrum. If by contrast a leader anchors to an extreme position on the skill spectrum, for example they express highly forceful behaviours often, they may find it difficult to access the opposite skill. In other words, moderate leaders may find it easier to show versatility in their skill sets.

I don’t follow basketball anymore. The dish has long since rusted out and been removed. The players of the Showtime era have all retired. Although I don’t follow basketball, from a distance what I sense about the game is that versatility among players has become much more common now than it used to be. Years ago, the tall players always stayed close to the basket, they rarely dribbled the ball, and almost never shot from the outside. The shorter guards mirrored this practice, usually staying on the perimeter of the court. There was little cross-pollination of skills between positions. Now, it’s easy to find examples of many tall players who express a kind of hybrid style, inside and outside, shooting long distance shots but also working close to the basket. The skill silos have fallen and we’ve entered an era of versatility. I suspect the world of leadership skills is moving in a similar direction.

Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has assessed and coached leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He's also worked with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.

Email: tjackson@jacksonleadership.com

Web: www.jacksonleadership.com

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