I know some of you might think I am one of those people who always thinks he is right. And to be frank, more often than not I am. But I do have a more open mind than most and I do actually love meeting people who make me think differently.
Recently I have met a few of those. And spot what they have in common. One is Jose Mourinho. The second is retired athlete Kriss Akabusi. The third is former Wales rugby star turned gay icon Gareth ‘Alfie’ Thomas.
Mourinho, as I may have mentioned before, is one of the WINNERS I interviewed for the book of that name. I have seen him again since, to resume the conversation. As I recorded in the book’s main profile on master strategy, he is a disruptor who has twice now made me slightly rethink and retweak long held views on the interplay between strategy and tactics.
Akabusi is someone I have only known from afar until this weekend, having spent the last couple of days with him at a conference in Malta. He slept in and missed my presentation, but I saw his, which was terrific.
I was on just after breakfast (and given how late he got to bed, I can understand why he gave it a miss.) I did what I do more and more at speaking gigs these days, mainly get up, take a look at the audience and only then decide what I am going to talk about, yesterday after offering a few multiple choice questions on audience preference re style and content. I do this more to prevent myself from becoming bored than the audience, though the two are linked. If I am tired of hearing what I have to say, why should I expect anyone else to be interested?
Anyway it went down well enough judging by the reaction in the hall and on social media. Then I waited for Kriss, who did a fantastic resume of his life story, poor son of Nigerian parents who left him to be raised in care, into the British army, running talent spotted by a sergeant, into athletics, and glory. The climax of his presentation was him showing, and shouting his way through, the film of his most famous race, when he ran the final leg to beat the Americans in the 1991 World Championships 4 x 400 relay. The brilliant David Coleman’s commentary was the perfect soundtrack, especially as he twice expressed his scepticism about Akabusi’s chances of holding off the Americans even before the baton got to him. It was wonderful stuff. So was the whole speech. Filled with great stories and characters, told with fantastic energy and passion.
As we walked out together I asked him how many times he had done that presentation. ‘What? You mean so far this week?’ he replied, before laughing – he was a famously loud laugh. He told me he had not gone more than a few days at most in the last 20 years without doing that presentation, or a variation of it. But what was fantastic was that because of the energy and the passion and the broader, modern lessons – especially about teamship, and the wonderful story of how he and Roger Black forced the UK Athletics management to re-order the relay team so that Black, their best runner, went off first not last – everyone in that room felt he was talking to them, and telling them a story he had never told before.
Now I still couldn’t do the same speech again and again. But the lesson I took from it was that if you like doing something, and your audience likes it, don’t worry too much about changing a winning formula. Just keep it up to date and keep on tweaking but as mega-brain chess maestro Garry Kasparov told me in WINNERS, don’t change your strategy unless the fundamentals change.
Gareth Thomas, whom henceforth I shall call Alfie because that is what everyone calls him, said something which challenged me rather more fundamentally than either Jose or Kriss. I know Alfie well, having worked on the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand a decade ago, when he became captain after Brian O’Driscoll was battered out of the tour. We became friends, and have kept in touch, including through that period when he openly and publicly came to terms with his sexuality, and deservedly become something of a hero for doing so. He also owes me forever, because I wangled him a place in the Soccer Aid match at Old Trafford with Diego Maradona, about which I never talk.
Anyway we were speaking at a conference last week in London, him on a panel about the upcoming Rugby World Cup, me afterwards about the book and the psychology of winning and what I learned from sport that ought to be applied in politics and business. As I often do I also talked about mental health and mental illness.
Afterwards Alfie was the first person to come up to me. He does a lot of work in schools now and he said that he felt there was a danger in the message I was putting out about the paramount importance of winning. Alfie, as both team-mates and opponents from his playing days know, is as competitive as they come. This was not my and other mothers’ dictum that ‘it is taking part not winning that counts.’ This was more, as he put it, that sometimes the desire to win can be such ‘that it becomes a form of mental illness.’
Earlier that day, as I had told the conference, I had done an interview with Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 about Lance Armstrong, and Alfie said the Texan cyclist may be a case in point. I had talked of the quote Armstrong gave to me, when I first interviewed him even before the Lions tour, when I still believed he was clean, just better and harder working than the rest, to he effect that he saw death from cancer and losing the Tour de France as ‘the same thing.’
‘That is sick,’ said Alfie. ‘I mean literally.’ So he asked me to have a think about whether there might be an inconsistency, or at least a considerable tension, between my campaigning on mental illness whilst exhorting the virtues of winning.
I did discover in my research that ‘maladaptive competitiveness’ – to which I plead guilty – is seen by some as a medical condition. So maybe he has a point. He has certainly got me thinking. And I am not sure yet what I conclude. But I reckon he and I should do a debate in a school and get to the heart of what we think about it.
Alfie is among the most winning winning mindsets I have come across. But he is saying there are limits. And crossing them may be a form of mental illness. That is quite a big point I would say. I intend to mull on it, and am interested in the mullings of others.
Isn’t it interesting, too, and maybe a bit worrying, that these days I find it is sportsmen and women, more than politicians, who get my brain shifting to places it has not gone before? Maybe it comes back to one of the points I make in the book, that top people in sport now think nothing of getting the best psychological support, up to and including top psychiatrists, whilst in business and politics there remains something of a taboo about admitting that we might need them? Just a thought.