Unconventional Leadership Lessons from Jeremy Lin

| 17 Feb 2012 | 12:31 PM ET


How can several multi-million dollar basketball teams overlook Jeremy Lin, a dormant star player who was on their own teams?

Well, he didn’t have any experience as a star. He didn’t graduate from a university with a history of producing basketball stars.

Additionally, the fact that there aren’t many Asian stars in American professional basketball probably played a role too.

In other words, according to “conventional basketball wisdom”, Jeremy Lin shouldn’t be a basketball star!

Unfortunately, conventional wisdom and thinking routinely prevent managers from finding, hiring and/or utilizing star players at companies around the world. Experience and education are overused as selection criteria, which hurts innovation and competitiveness.

Experience is a poor indicator of what has been learned in the past and what can be done in the future. Driving is a good example of how experience often fails to produce learning and expertise. Many people who have been driving for years, and therefore have ample experience, are still poor drivers.

The weak relationship between experience and expertise is evident in many organizations as well. Anything that one does admirably today, one did not know how to do in the past, so experience was not a valid predictor of future success. Therefore, for the same reason, it is unreasonable to use experience indiscriminately as a selection criterion.

Organizations depend on new ideas and innovation for survival. Since innovation is by nature something new, prior experience in often irrelevant. Some of the most creative and successful entrepreneurs had no experience at all in their fields when they started their firms.

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream was started by two friends who knew nothing about the ice cream business. Ted Turner didn’t have a journalism education or any experience in the news business when he launched CNN . Richard Branson has created numerous unrelated ventures, which have made him one of the richest men in the world, despite the fact that he didn’t possess any experience in most of his businesses.

Unconventional leaders are similar to entrepreneurs in that they are willing to try new ideas and take risks in their quest to beat the competition. Unconventional leaders think outside the box, so they find stars with unexpected backgrounds, something their competition would never consider.

What are good selection criteria for finding unconventional thinkers who can work in a dynamic environment?Seeking people who are open to new ideas, have a vision similar to the company’s, and are comfortable with ambiguity is likely to yield better results than focusing on how much work experience applicants have or whether they have a university education.

The ability to learn quickly and adapt are both particularly important as well. Each organization should devise its own selection criteria and process that is matched to its culture and strategy. Keep in mind that the process created is not static, it should be adjusted over time.

When using an innovative selection process, it might take much more time to find and select personnel. That is the price to pay for doing things differently. For example, Google interviews are a day long affair, or more. Google is also one of the most unconventional companies in the world.

Don’t make the mistake of the New York Knicks, who discovered Jeremy Lin by chance. Break with conventional wisdom and do something different when looking for talent. A customized and innovative selection process will help you find and select unconventional thinkers who can help your company beat the competition.


Isn’t this the story of Steve Jobs? How many of us have had the experience in a job interview where only the number of degrees have been the measure of our ability? It seems that this topic of unconventional is more common but the truth of the matter is that things not only have not changed, but become more difficult. People are less willing to take a chance or be guided by their intuition.