The Jeremy Lin Phenomenon
What Businesses Can Learn
Knicks guard Jeremy Lin reversed his team's fortunes in a matter of days. His exploits may have a message for companies scrambling to find or nurture the right people for specific roles.
What Businesses Can LearnBy Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 491 )
Ten seconds left. Game tied. Point guard Jeremy Lin, who has been with the New York Knicks for under two months, stands outside the three-point arc, dribbling the ball with one hand while directing traffic closer to the basket with the other.
As the clock winds down, everybody expects him to drive toward the basket. But instead he waits patiently. Five, four, three, two … Lin launches a three-pointer, and it's good!
The Knicks steal a comeback win, and fans watching the game courtside and on TV go wild.
It's a script made for Hollywood: An American of Asian descent, whose talents have been ignored, appears out of nowhere with amazing skills, rich and playful body language, and a youthful face that is modest yet confident, shy yet passionate.
And there's more. The Harvard graduate could have taken a high-paying job on Wall Street but instead followed his heart to pursue his NBA dream.
Twenty-three-year-old Jeremy Lin has rewritten basketball history. He's the first Harvard graduate to play in the NBA in 68 years, and his 136 points in his first five career starts were the most by any NBA player since the league merged with the ABA in 1976-1977. Consigned to the bench for most of his year-plus career, Lin took an 8-15 team given up for dead in a strike-shortened 66-game season and turned it around in one of the most memorable stretches ever for an NBA player, leading the Knicks to seven consecutive wins in 12 days.
Engineering a Turnaround Miracle
Lin has created a new formula for success: B-level talent + B-level organization = A+ performance.
The key to making this formula work is people. Even an individual with a resume and pedigree that pale in comparison with those of his peers has the potential to join a poorly performing team and completely revitalize it.
The other key to the success of the formula is the organization. Employing the right new person can generate unbelievable results for the organization.
To be fair, Lin, who started playing basketball when he was 5 years old, is more than just a B-level talent. He led Palo Alto High School to a 32-1 record in his senior year in 2005-2006 and was voted the Division II Northern California Player of the Year.
In a four-year career at Harvard, where he ended up after not getting any scholarship offers, Lin set Ivy League records for scoring, rebounds, assists and steals. But those records were discounted because the Ivy League is considered "B-grade" in the world of college basketball.
Lin's 2012 legend that is growing by the day has demonstrated many special attributes: having an iron will to win, persevering in pursuit of one's dreams, and understanding the importance of making one's teammates look good while trying to excel individually.
Lin's father, Gie-ming Lin, told CommonWealth Magazine in an interview last August that his son has always hated losing, and performs better the tougher the opposition. He described his son as the ideal combination of natural talent and hard work.
In the same interview, Lin admitted to being disappointed with his play during his first NBA season with the Golden State Warriors, which lost him the opportunity to prove himself on the court.
But he refused to abandon the dream of his youth and trained up to six hours a day to strengthen his body and sharpen his shooting skills.
"Seven wins in a row is definitely not a fluke. Luck is never part of success," observed DBS Bank (Taiwan) Ltd. vice president Chen Shih-jen, who has written about the NBA for 30 years. Chen said Lin's preparation set the stage for his current exploits.
Lin's story may also be instructive in the world of business.
In his book Good to Great, management guru Jim Collins wrote that "Level 5 leaders" – those at the highest level in a hierarchy of executive capabilities, who can elevate companies from mediocrity to sustained excellence – tend to be both "modest and willful, shy and fearless." They resemble superstars who quietly ride the bench and can easily be overlooked.
For many companies, figuring out how to find the Jeremy Lins hiding on their benches and giving them a chance to prove themselves could very well be one of their most urgent tasks.
Translated and edited by Luke Sabatier