Leading Role Players

In the conversation around leadership, it couldn’t be more timely than to include Kevin Ollie, head coach of the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies. What an 18-months, what a season, what a March, what a story. And when you take time to dig a little deeper, what a story of years of hard work, years of giving, years of teaching, and profound love.

Last night, before the big game, I wanted to see what Wikipedia had to say about Coach Ollie. This paragraph pretty much says it all:

NBA player Kevin Durant in an interview with Grantland said that Kevin Ollie (who played for Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009-2010) “taught him the ropes”, and “changed the culture of Oklahoma City”. He also said, “Kevin Ollie, he was a game changer for us. I think he changed the whole culture in Oklahoma City. Just his mind set, professionalism, every single day. And we all watched that, and we all wanted to be like that. It rubbed off on Russell Westbrook, myself, Jeff Green, James Harden. And then everybody who comes through now, it’s the standard that you’ve got to live up to as a Thunder player. And it all started with Kevin Ollie.”

I got to thinking about other Kevin-like players in the NBA who do not boast impressive stats, but add something far more valuable, something that cannot be added up in the box score.

Who are the Kevin Ollie characters in our lives or who could be in our lives? Who are the people around us who have something incredible to offer, who lead by example and inspire those they serve? What platform can we provide for them to shine even more brightly?


If you have some time, read these three articles about Coach Ollie. I found the way the article Kevin Ollie: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know breaks down playing on 13 teams in 12 NBA seasons (team and salary) was especially interesting.

Last, it’s hard not to be inspired by Coach Ollie in this 18 minute talk that came from the 5 Fast Facts article above.

Change the Conversation

UConn and St. Joe’s was the first game I saw this March Madness. It was love at first sight.

In my first March Madness since college, I’ve loved the games, I’ve loved the commercials, I’ve loved the commentary. But the very best? The seasoned teams, the ones with seniors who have stayed the course. And the marination of anticipation over the years – of playing through March and being the only team to finish the season with a win.

As the Wisconsin/Kentucky game got going on Saturday night, my Dad and I got into a conversation about one and done. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s a phrase that has become connected to John Calipari and the University of Kentucky program, a team that starts five talented Freshman. One and done refers to those student-athletes who come to school for a year before they choose to leave school in favor of the NBA. Calipari will have had 20 such players on his team in the five years by the close of this year’s NBA draft (he has 17 to date).

Both of us were rooting for Wisconsin, a team with some season. But when I Google’ed one and done, I came across this article that is very much worth a read.

As a college basketball fan, I don’t want to see great players leave so quickly. Heck, in my college basketball watching heyday, I didn’t want to see the seniors go. But why is the choice for college basketball players, whether they stay or they go, come under more scrutiny than anyone else with a chance, a choice to pursue an opportunity that might change their life and the lives of their families?

As much as I wish my writing tonight was all about UConn and how great Kevin Ollie is as a coach, I really like what Coach Calipari has done as a leader – and how he’s attempting to change a conversation.

One a done leaves a bad taste in peoples mouth. But succeed and proceed, not only does it have a nice ring, it gets closer to the core of what’s behind these shortened sojourns at the college level for these ball players.

The article paints Calipari as a great recruiter, a great coach, and a great teacher. I agree with the idea that to proceed one must succeed. To continue on to the next level, one must have achieved.

But the part I love even more is that Calipari’s players support the idea that he makes no promises to them. That his attitude and coaching style invites them to grow up – and they have the choice to step up to that challenge.

Basketball, in some ways is just a game. But in other ways it’s a platform for learning transformative lessons. Of dedication and hard work. Focus and concentration. Sharing and teamwork. Looking out for others. And more.

Who are we to judge when someone has learned the lesson? And whether or not they should have the opportunity to pursue a dream to ‘play’ at the next level?

In an age where we say yes to kid entrepreneurs, how are these basketball players any different?

Coach Calipari, I’m not rooting for your team tonight, but I do have a little extra respect and appreciation for your craft and your coaching style. Thank you for helping me to think a little bit differently about this conversation.

Take Your Shot

Before this year’s edition of March Madness, the last time I watched this much basketball was sometime close to the turn of the millennium. College basketball has its reputation for bringing out more emotion than the average sporting event. The emotion and the energy of it all is incredible – and I’ve loved every minute of it.

I knew I’d love the games, and likely be moved by the games going down to the wire with teams with incredible chemistry and seniors out there trying to fulfill their collegiate basketball dreams.

But I did not expect to be moved by commentary about players on the court that is equally applicable to many of us athletes in the game of life.

The comment I took away today was about a player who was no longer just taking shots, he was taking shots that were right for him. It’s not just about making shots, but about taking shots one is capable of making. And what a difference that made in the way he played the game – his game.

What shots are you just taking? And what shots are you meant to make? What’s your shot? What’s your game?


I streamed an interesting radio show yesterday morning on Connecticut’s WNPR – Where We Live – hosted by John Dankosky. The topic: How Clean Is Our Air?

Here in the US, I thought I was far away from such issues of the air. Does America have an air pollution problem?

Having followed Dr. Angel Hsu’s work for quite some time now, I’ve been involved in more than a handful of conversations around air quality and measures like PM2.5. After a number of years living in China, last spring I was lucky to join the class she co-taught at Yale with Dr. Karen Seto, From Dongguan to Delhi: Urbanization and the Environment in China and India. It was my first chance to experience a first-hand comparison between Beijing and New Delhi.

Like many others, I was interested in the competitive conversation sparked back in January by this article around air quality between Beijing and New Delhi. The primary catalyst to this conversation, the 2014 version of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), uses measured approaches (indicators) to articulate how countries are doing across a range of issues.

Last week, team EPI wrote a post that appeared on Scientific American to further contribute to this conversation around the tale of two cities, China-India Smog Rivalry a Sign of Global Menace. The post is worth perusing, not only for the beautiful infographic that illustrates several data points in the discussion around Beijing and New Delhi air, but to share a new estimate that one in eight people in the world each year die as a result of air pollution exposure [this is according to a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO)].

But even more interesting? 3.87 billion people worldwide – almost half of the global population – live in areas that exceed the threshold deemed “safe” by the WHO.

Beyond the numbers there are stories of severe air pollution from places like Paris and Seoul. Apparently air pollution is not just a problem of the developing world, it’s everybody’s problem.

And then the conversation turned to a place even closer to home.

After almost a year back in America, this morning was the first time I heard a conversation around air pollution that did not cite China or elsewhere in Asia. Rather, the state with the most air pollution in the Northeast (Connecticut), aside from one last coal-guzzling energy plant, is influenced by pollution coming from the Midwest.

A conversation about air pollution in Connecticut was about the furthest thing from my mind before I listened to this show. And, for many of us, air pollution has probably felt far away for a long time – reserved mostly for places with factories abroad since leaving America many years ago.

It seems like countries like China and India have pressure from the media and citizens to make a change. While neighbors like South Korea have a strong interest in keeping their air clean. It will be a collective effort to make these improvements and for everyone to benefit.

What about America? How are folks in America working between States and other international boundaries to keep its skies clean, clear, and under control?

Unwritten Rules

We all have the benefit of seeing things from our own perspective, even when we believe we take into account the perspectives of others.

Recently a friend and I found, halfway through a conversation, that we had some serious issues with the way the other approached a particular topic. What does it mean to have constructive dialogue, particularly when conflict arises?

We took a step back, talked about what we thought happened, and decided to write about it. What might that look like?

Well, here are the results, side by side.

Unwritten Rules

When was the last time you were in a two-way conversation and realized part-way through that you both felt bad?

I found myself in a conversation yesterday where I felt bad. The first reason was because I realized I had made the other person feel not listened to, and thus, not so great.

The second reason was because my conversation partner had chosen not to tell me I was answering a question that wasn’t meant to be answered. At least not by me. Which, feels as confusing as it sounds.

How often do you get frustrated at others for not following the rules you have established that others have yet to master? This, of course, assumes they have been previously exposed.

[That was a mouthful. Let’s try this again.]

How often do you get frustrated at others for not following the rules?

How were they taught the rules? Rather, how did they know the rules were rules? Are you invested in their understanding and mastery of these rules? Why does it matter?

The funny thing is, my conversation partner told me about the rules, or expectations, earlier in our conversation. Questions are quite important to her. And she feels strongly that some questions need time to be answered. (I would agree.)

She also feels strongly that some questions do not need an answer from you (i.e. if I bring up a question for discussion with you, I may not be asking you to answer the question, merely asking if I’m asking the right question).

She finds it important – actually, demands – that people accommodate questions and understand these differences. Also, she’s not big on rhetorical questions.

Granted, this is all taken out of context for you, as the reader. And if I was you, I might think this all to be a bit insane.

Actually, with all the context, I think this is a bit insane.

As I write, I can’t help but wonder how anyone would just ‘get this’ the first, or second, or maybe even third time around. The concept is clear, but complex without practice. Case in point, not long afterwards, a question was posed to me. And after quite some time, thanks to a slightly passive aggressive nudge, I realized I had been exploring and answering a question that was not meant for me to answer.

Was it my responsibility to know not to answer? Was it her responsibility to remind me of the rules when she realized what was happening – or to wait until it was over to teach me a lesson on the rules?

I’m searching for the right metaphor – would a referee in a sports match or game wait until the very end to call a foul?

To my friend’s credit, in our post game re-cap, she told me that she had let me continue answering the question well after she was ready to tell me I was not playing by the rules. She was curious if her desire to put rules on the conversation was limiting her from unexpectedly good results. But, in the end, she wanted what she wanted and we found ourselves in an unfortunate place where nobody won. I spent time thinking through a question I thought was important in the wrong way. My friend spent time listening – before she stopped listening – to something she wasn’t looking for.

But let’s get back to who was at fault. Who should take the responsibility in a situation like this one? What is one to do?

Have you heard of William Blake? He wrote a brilliant poem that I heard in yoga class the other day for the first time.

I felt angry towards my friend.
I told my wrath. My wrath did end.
I felt angry toward my foe.
I told him not. My wrath did grow.

When someone causes your feelings to go south, why do you hold it in? If they are intentionally doing what they are doing – that’s one thing. If they are unintentionally doing what they are doing, that’s another thing. How can they correct themselves if they don’t understand your rules?

As in any situation, without collective rule design, where everyone understands and is on the same page, chances are the rules will forever be yours, and little more. You will feel unbalanced and when your dancing partner realizes, s/he will feel unbalanced too. Is there anything better than a little extra communication to find the where you both meet in the middle?

Wow. All this text over one crazy conversation, eh? How about you? What are the toned-down examples of this in your life?

Deconstructing Ideas

This year I was lucky enough to get a chance to explore a subject often on my mind: people talking. That’s how I labeled the subject in my head, and it’s simple enough because it’s in my head, entangled with context, memories, feelings and past stories. Written down, or uttered outside my own head, it seems deceptively simple. People Talking.

By “people”, I had meant the people I know. Asians. Indonesians. People in their 20’s. Those who have a lot in their minds, sometimes with a lot to say, sometimes with very few.

By “talking”, I had meant “interaction”, which I later understood are two elements of a formula. Talking + Interaction = Dialogue. A talk without interaction is a monologue. Interaction without talking is nonverbal connection.

And because fascination with improvement is not the same as perfectionism, the types of Dialogues that I found interesting to explore are then scoped down to Constructive Dialogue.

If I’ve done a proper job explaining the term, you should be able to reinterpret this using *your* context, memories, feelings, etc. You may then feel like this idea is better labeled with another term, like “debate”, “chats”, or “intellectual discourse”, or “civic / political engagement”. All these definitions are accurate in their own rights, and I am genuinely looking forward to discussing these labels with anyone who wants to hash this out. It’s literally what I’ve been trying to do in the last 3 months: to start a conversation about conversations.

Anyway, the labels I’ve mentioned are what most people mention as alternative terms for Constructive Dialogue. But what about Arguments? I don’t mean argumentation in a debate setting, I mean confrontational, emotional argumentation. A fight, if you must. Is that considered constructive dialogue?

My first thought was this: Arguments are dialogues with intense emotions. My second thought was: man, arguments are the very definition of destructive dialogue. They literally break things – people, confidence, integrity, relationships, characters. How would you possibly see arguments as a constructive dialogue?

It’s not completely clear, but I’m thinking of the old saying: fights are healthy. We’re supposed to have them. It shows the relationship is working. I wish somebody can explain what this means. When I get into an argument, with anyone, I often feel crappy for a long time after. How is this healthy? Maybe it’s healthy if the people involved can manage their emotions. But if that’s the case, an argument is no longer a dialogue with intense emotions. Then again, though we are all told to manage our emotions better, what would humanity be like without anger, or tears, or screams? Can we honestly say it would be a better world?

Maybe for my next project, I should start a fight about fights.