What is the Difference?

Blog Post Transformational Leadership

“It’s different…and people aren’t used to different.”
–Lonzo Ball, Basketball player, UCLA

One of the best players in this year’s college basketball season and the consensus top pick in the NBA draft has created a stir. It is not the usual off-court antics that unfortunately galvanize readers to probe the print below the sports headlines; no, it is the way he shoots a basketball that has the pundits fidgeting. It is different. His shooting form is not “traditional.” Everything about it, the way he starts his shot with the ball low, before moving it into a shooting position with his shooting arm crossing his face, defies what the textbook says is proper. Lonzo Ball, a point guard for the UCLA men’s basketball team, is making people uncomfortable and not only those on the sidelines. He is dominating the college game on the hardwood. As he suggests, “people aren’t used to different.”

Fresh from my review of college application essays, it strikes me that a common prompt for essays responses, in effect, asks applicants to describe what differentiates them, what makes them different. I can imagine Lonzo Ball’s three sentence response: “I will shoot a basketball in a way that everyone tells me is bad, wrong, needs to change, will never work, is unorthodox, and doomed for failure. I will be the top pick in the NBA. I will demonstrate to others, through sports, that different is a path to greatness.”

What’s Wrong with Different?

As children, we are taught to recognize what the world accepts as the difference between right and wrong. We are rewarded for being “right,” and it doesn’t take long before we adopt a built-in notion of what “right” means. Whether on the sports fields or in the classroom, there is a clear, black and white distinction made between two paths of performance, right and wrong. A third path, ‘different’, does not fit; accordingly, if it does not fit, it is not right, and therefore, considered wrong.

We enter the business world with a similar pattern of right-wrong thinking, though as adults, we have learned that the world is not as black and white as we might have been led to believe. Leadership is declared to be an ‘art’, implying that “different’, the foundation of art, is an acceptable path, actually a preferential one with outcomes that can be celebrated. As leaders, we are challenged to embrace a new way of thinking about ‘different’ as a quality that can be admired and not dismissed as wrong. When looking in the mirror and looking out to others, can we be okay with ‘different’?

What’s Right with Different?

Leaders make a difference in the world by being different. They dare to see things that others do not see, and have the courage to act to fulfill on what is possible. Their actions are aligned with the highest values that allow the right-wrong, good-bad, win-lose commentary of self-talk and others’ inputs to serve as a useful reference versus a truth. Leaders encourage ‘different’ because they realize that in ‘different’ resides the magic of human creativity, inspiration, and achievement. It is said that the biggest challenge in life is to be yourself, in a world that is trying to make you like everyone else. If it is true that of the approximately 7.5 billion people on the planet, each of us is different, the “right” thing about being different is we can just be ourselves.

Lonzo Ball shoots a basketball in a way that is different and he is arguably the best in the game at the college level. When compared to his peers, what is s the difference?