The proverbs of Sam Hinkie and what he didn’t get

I jokingly posted to our Share Board last week that the Philadelphia 76ers were looking for a new general manager and president of operations. This was after Sam Hinkie, who has become notorious in Philadelphia for the unconventional way he has led our basketball team, announced his resignation. I joked that almost anyone would do better than Hinkie who has, without apology, created a basketball team that specializes in losing. Of course, this was something of a tongue-in-cheek statement, since most people know that Hinkie was trying to game the NBA lottery system to collect good draft picks and assets. The system is broken and Hinkie was simply exploiting it. Many people do this, but usually not as obviously as Hinkie and his 76ers did.

ap-sam-hinkie-sixersIt is hard to have much success in the NBA without a superstar athlete and the best way to get one is to draft well (although Tim Duncan, drafted in 1997, is the last overall number one pick to win a championship with the team that drafted him, so nothing is a guarantee, obviously). But Hinkie took this basic piece of wisdom and created a whole philosophy out of it.

Because of his unconventional wisdom, Hinkie was literally bullied by the big hulks of Philadelphia media. The jocks in high school turned broadcasters found a new nerd to pick on.

The bullies were back at it when Hinkie announced his resignation. They mocked him for his 13-page resignation letter. Hinkie’s verbosity and vocabulary are unusual to be sure, he is eccentric and not very sociable, and in fact was horrified (reportedly) when the recipients of his apparently personal letter leaked it to the media. As usual, we found out about his resignation before he wished we did. It is easy to make fun of a letter that has obscure references, including one to an extinct, 500-pound New Zealand flightless bird. The reporters basically acted like it was impossible to understand (in my view, exposing their own ignorance and myopia).

When Nate told me to read it, I was surprised to find some brilliant lessons that everyone, Christians in this world especially, could benefit from. His whole manifesto centers on the idea that we need to find new and better ways to solve redundant problems. And that innovation often doesn’t look like much to start. He allegedly quotes Lincoln when he says, “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” I suppose that was Hinkie’s mantra for his tenure at the Sixers. Here’s what I learned from his letter.

Assume you’re wrong and your goal is to be less wrong. That kind of humility leads to Hinkie’s unconventionality, that his detractors exhibited none of it is not surprising. Hinkie says a good way to monitor a leaders’ humility is to keep score. “Write in your own words what you think will happen and why before a decision. Refer back to it later. See if you were right, and for the right reasons.”

Most success is not immediate and requires a long view. Hinkie wanted to have the longest view of any NBA team. Three years of tanking didn’t produce the results some wished for, but Hinkie was always preparing for the future. With the assets at the Sixers disposal, they may very well have the kind of success we all want in five years. It may be because of Hinkie’s long view.

Be wary of consensus. In a zero-growth industry (like the NBA where 82 wins is all you can ever get), to win you may need to do something contrarian. People will misunderstand and disagree with you, but resisting the comfort of agreement may result in achieved goals.

If you want to win, become tolerant of uncertainty. Hinkie’s decisions were based in probability and so are a lot of the risks we take. The fact is, no decision we make will certainly succeed and the Sixers needed some luck on their side (not just to draft high, but that their draft picks actually turned out to be superstars). Hinkie said he needed luck; and we do too, I think prayer can help our luck out, too. Still, you may fail. Sometimes you do everything right and it still doesn’t work.

Don’t let innovation crowd tradition. The fundamentals still count and they still count in basketball. The basics of the game and the recruitment are unchanging. Good relational skills will always matter. So will being a good teammate.

Disruption changes the status quo. Every system can be homeostatic. The NBA is no different. In order for a team to succeed that historically hasn’t, it must be disruptive. It happens to the moa, the aforementioned flightless bird that went extinct with settlers came to its native New Zealand. It happened to Blackberry’s keyboard when the iPhone was invented. The Sixers were trying to disrupt the NBA’s system in a way that wasn’t unsimilar to the probably three-point-happy champion Warriors.

You need a large quiver. For the Sixers that meant holding rights to players that were in other leagues that they couldn’t develop right away. The popularity and success of European players is evidence of this strategy working. In our world, that simply means looking beyond our immediate limitations to see how else we can develop people. (If you’re wondering why I’m distilling leadership lessons from a basketball GM of a losing team, I’m trying to apply the same principle).

His plan for the draft may very well work this year. And it is sad to see Hinkie go when the Sixers may very well have the greatest draft in NBA history. The new people in charge may very well destroy the opportunities that Hinkie gave them because of his unconventionality. But I think we will enjoy his planning and his brilliance.

Hinkie is idiosyncratic, to be sure. Hard to follow, hard to understand. Infuriatingly inaccessible. I actually don’t excuse him for those things. His 13-page letter is a little difficult to get through. It’s not an example of good communication. And unfortunately, Sam never really communicated well. His brilliance preceded him, but you can be the smartest person in the room, and if you can’t convince anyone of what you’re talking about, you may as well not even be in the room. Maybe I can relate to him because sometimes I struggle to communicate all of my ideas, too.

His biggest weakness then wasn’t a shortage of great ideas or even an inability to execute them, but that it took a leaked letter for all of us to learn about how good of a leader he could have been.

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