The Components of Killer Instinct

Two years ago I asked, Is a killer instinct necessary in business and life? There were some good comments. But I’ve never thought hard about what the components of a "killer instinct" actually are. In this Sports Illustrated piece praising Kobe Bryant’s "freakish love of the game" and peerless tenacity, there’s this interesting graf:

Idan Ravin, a personal trainer who works with…Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand and is known by some in the league as "the hoops whisperer" for his effect on players, has even broken killer instinct down into components: love of the game, ambition, obsessive-compulsive behavior, arrogance/ confidence, selfishness and nonculpability/ guiltlessness. He sees them all in Bryant.

Earlier there’s this:

There are no plus-minus stats to measure a player’s ruthlessness, his desire to beat his opponent so badly he’ll need therapy to recover. One thing’s for sure: You can’t teach it.

I wonder whether similar observations could be made in business. Are the big time CEOs freakishly competitive, mind-blowingly arrogant, and singularly focused on their business goals even at the cost of "balance"?

(hat tip: del.icio.us/chrisyeh)

8 Responses to The Components of Killer Instinct

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    In a word, yes. History is pretty clear on the fact that most great men (and women) are bastards.

    Even Gandhi was a philandering jerk.

    But, and this is an important but, there are exceptions.

    Chekhov was a living saint. Bill George at Medtronic always coached his kids soccer games. I’ve heard from many that Richard Branson is actually a pretty decent dude.

    And certainly, being an asshole doesn’t guarantee sustained success. Just ask Al Dunlap.

    There is a lot of evidence to suggest that for most people, being likeable is a better career strategy than being a jerk. Bob Sutton has all the details in “The No Asshole Rule.” So if you don’t suffer from the ambition to be king of the hill, you’ll probably do fine.

    This issue is this: If you scorn balance, work like a machine, and devote your entire life to excelling in one area, it’s going to be tough for “nice guys” to match your performance. If the balanced guy works 40 hours per week, and you manage to work 100, and at a monomaniacally greater level of focus, you’ll probably climb that latter that much faster.

    Moreover, there’s no insurmountable reason that you can’t be insanely driven and focused (to the exclusion of having any kind of personal life), and still be polite and likeable. Warren Buffett is just as obsessed as Kobe, but because he comes off as warm and funny, we like him AND worship him.

    If, like Warren Buffet (or Chekhov, or Bill George), you can carry off this achievement mania without making everyone around you think you’re a weapons-grade prick, you *can* avoid the asshole penalty. It’s just rare as heck.

    So if you do have that crazed, burning drive to be #1, and you consider that achievement worth any cost, go for it. Just don’t be a jerk or complain about your lack of family or happiness.

    Go Lakers!

  2. Shefaly says:

    Thought-provoking post, although the sports coach’s ‘components’ say something about what he is exposed to in the sports world, a highly stylised, structured ‘workplace’ with a blatant ageist bias even if it is has transcended some racial barriers, and where everything really _is_ a zero-sum game unlike in life’s other endeavours…

    I do not think however, as Chris Yeh does, that niceness is ‘rare as heck’. Yes, it is true that the more successful in business play a different ‘game’ from others. But that is not to the exclusion of all else. In fact, my experience is that with a few exceptions, assholes do get stuck somewhere near the bottom of the top, top of the middle.

    In fact, nearly all successful male CEOs have convinced extremely smart women to agree to be their wives and to remain as the most significant support behind their ambitions and the most important enablers of that success. An efficient and satisfying home life hides behind every efficient CEO/ leader.

    I wonder if this is a _new_ way of asking why women CEOs only rarely seem to have (supportive or for that matter) spouses. Is it possible that they do buy into the ‘asshole paradigm’ so much that it becomes impossible to find a decent person to be on their “domestic team” at all?

  3. hunter says:

    all i know is that every time i see kobe play, i seriously think “goddamn i’d love to hire him as a product manager for YouTube”

  4. commoner says:

    I wonder whether similar observations could be made in business. Are the big time CEOs freakishly competitive, mind-blowingly arrogant, and singularly focused on their business goals even at the cost of “balance”?

    Its called law school.

  5. I have known well many Olympic athletes and several self-made billionaires. The characteristics they have had in common are above average intelligence, incredible focus on their goal, supreme self-confidence, the ability to see the smallest advantage and use it, and unequalled passion for the objective.

    I have not seen them to be exceptionally selfish but frequently self-centered. Only one was without almost any morals. Only one sacrificed his family life. Alot of male philanderers. Interesting to me, they all “gave back” and were willing to help others.

    I would be suspect of the qualifications of a world class trainer to properly identify the characteristics of successful athletes, unless there is more to his background than is apparent.

  6. Lucas Oman says:

    This is why I’ve never wanted to be a CEO or any kind of lime-light star. That may sound like a cop-out, a preemptive excuse for having never done anything “significant,” but I’ve never known a person who everyone regarded as mega-successful and who I actually respected as a virtuous, good person.

  7. How many driven, focused players with the killer instinct in business have achieved ‘success’ by ruthlessly destroying the competition, only to discover the one ‘foe’ they couldn’t defeat was themselves?

    At that point they usually become either libertines or philanthropists.

  8. Dario Abramskiehn says:

    I think the straightforward answer here is “no.” The same way there have been lots of great NBA players who lacked Kobe’s killer instinct, there are quite a few successful companies created by people who don’t possess the same ruthlessness.

    That said, this is sort of an inherently tough comparison because you’re trying to compare supposedly the best basketball player in the game today (Kobe), against the rest of the crop of the best baketball players in the game today (everybody else in the NBA). But as far as I’m concerned, in the basketball-to-big-business analogy, every guy who makes it to the NBA is a successfull CEO as it were. Maybe Kobe is Rex Tillerson (CEO of Exxon Mobile — the biggest company in the world… or John D. Rockefeller if you want to go back to the beginning) whereas Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is (was?) “only” a Richard Branson. Either way, they’re both tremendously successful in their respective arenas.

    That said, a more complete answer is that the kind of drive, confidence, and ruthlessness that this article defines as killer instinct are definitely likely to be more of a benefit than a detractor in the business world. I imagine that a survey (or some other examination) of the CEOs of every company listed on the NYSE for example, would probably find that a very disproportionate number of them possess most/all of the qualities of killer instict that the aricle outlines. But by the very nature of Kobe’s exceptional play, only a few could be quite as possessed (assuming that there’s reciprocity between basketball and business in terms of what it takes to succeed).

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