Magic Johnson is such a perfectionist that he’d crush his own mom in basketball. Would you?

“I would crush you, too.”
“I would crush you, too.”
Image: Alan Mark
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Salt Lake City, Utah

Imagine basketball legend Magic Johnson—all 6 feet, 9 inches, and 231 pounds of him—standing nose-to-nose (or rather, chest to nose) with a tiny older woman named Nancy. Nancy, bless her soul, is in the front row at a conference with 6,000 in attendance. Johnson is speaking. He comes from the stage to ask her a question.

“If my mother were here right now,” he says, “and she asked me to play basketball one-on-one, I would let her get to nine-point-five out of 10. That would be hard for me to do. Then do you know what I would do to my mother?”

Nancy shakes her head, which Johnson appears to have anticipated, seeing as he answers without looking down to gauge her reaction.

“I would crush her,” he says. “It wouldn’t be ‘no hard feelings.’ I still love her. But I’m a winner.”

When winning is the only option

Offputting as the idea of crushing one’s mother may be, Johnson’s apparent savagery is rooted in humility, not arrogance.

Before becoming one of the most accomplished legends in NBA history, Earvin Johnson Jr. helped his father haul trash in Lansing, Michigan. (He also dribbled everywhere he walked, and slept with his basketball.)

“My job was to get the loose trash, and he would get barrels,” Johnson told the audience at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit, a brand-experience conference held in March in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“One day, it was 17 degrees below zero. It was really cold, and as a young kid I couldn’t stand it. So I ran out of the truck, picked up some of the trash, then ran back in.” As soon as he closed the truck door, his father opened it and dragged him out. Johnson recalls his father saying, “There’s trash stuck in the ice, son. If you do your life half way, that’s how you’ll practice basketball, that’s how you’ll do your homework—you’ll always be a person who doesn’t finish the job.” 

“That just stung me to get out of the truck, pick up my shovel, and chop the ice around the barrel until I’d picked up all of the trash,” he says. “That day, that moment, changed my life. From that point on I did everything the right way, and I became a perfectionist.”

The perfectionism paid off. When Johnson joined the Los Angeles Lakers as a rookie, the team hadn’t won a championship in 22 years. On his first day of practice, he showed up two hours early. The next day, he showed up three hours early. Within his first week, his coach decided that every player on the team would follow Johnson’s lead, showing up to drill for at least two hours before practice officially began.

“I wanted them to see and understand that I was there to win,” says Johnson. ”They hated me. But let me tell you what happened, it changed the culture. Everything changed, guys start getting there early and guess what happens—we won the championship that year. As a leader, you must understand what you need to do to put your company, and your staff, in a winning position.” 

In his 13-year NBA career, spent entirely with the Lakers, Johnson played on five championship teams, won the MVP and Finals MVP award three times each, became a 12-time All-Star and nine-time member of the NBA first team, and starred on the original Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics.

Johnson’s career did not end after he retired his jersey. Instead, he went on to find success as an investor, philanthropist, and HIV/AIDS activist. Johnson is now president of basketball operations for the Lakers, co-owner of the LA Dodgers, and chairman and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, a $1 billion investment office focused on entertainment and services for “ethnically diverse, urban communities,” including poorer neighborhoods typically eschewed by major brands.

His business team understands his philosophy, he says.

“I love to win, so when I got to the Lakers, I wasn’t going to change for anyone,” Johnson says. “Now with my company, I’m the same guy. I wake up every morning at four o’clock. I’m in the gym by five—hour of cardio, hour of weights, and then I’m in the office all day. So my staff sees me, and I’m willing to get my hands dirty. They follow my lead. And we don’t leave the office until our work is done. That’s how I am, and that’s how they will be. I give them five minutes to celebrate a victory, and then I say, ‘What’s next?’ and we get right back on—because in this marketplace today, it’s not enough for you to just deliver anymore. You have to over-deliver.”

Do you want to work in a high-performance culture?

One might presume a competition-obsessed player like Johnson would be famous for some form of domination—be it shooting, scoring, or business acquisition. His signature move, however, is passing.

Johnson’s professional mentality is rooted in motivational theories which, when viewed through a wider lens, become synonymous with generosity. Instead of comforting his family, teammates, or colleagues with the false pretense that they can accomplish anything just as they are, Johnson bestows them with the same gift his father gave him: the realization that greatness doesn’t just exist, but must be constantly cultivated by chipping away at the ice that is your challenging, unglamorous reality. Sometimes you’ll hack out trash, and sometimes you’ll hack out the next step toward an outstanding career—but the hacking itself, and the decision to seek improvement, is what makes you stronger.

It is, essentially, a form of tough love, says Liane Davey, an organizational psychology expert and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done“Magic Johnson has the right philosophy and behavior to create high performance,” at least in those with the character and motivation to get there, Davey says. “Those willing to reach for extraordinary results must be willing to endure personalities, practices, and punishments that most of us are not willing to accept. That’s what greatness takes. It’s not ‘balanced,’ it’s not ‘fair,’ and it’s certainly not comfortable.”

This poses a conflict for leaders invested in producing exceptional outcomes. “You have to be willing to double-down on somethings, while cutting others, instead of spreading resources like peanut butter,” Davey says. “Most leaders are motivated by fairness, and reward effort and loyalty. That doesn’t get you high performance, though you’ll probably have more people toast you at your retirement party.”

Creating a culture of high-performance needs to be a conscious choice for leaders, but it also needs to be a conscious choice by employees to participate in one. Whether you’re applying for new roles or evaluating your present position, it’s important to ask yourself whether you really want to work in a high-performance organization.

The answer shouldn’t be an automatic yes. If it is, you’ll probably have to sleep with your phone beside you, without the do-not-disturb mode switched on. You should expect to work on vacation. You should be the first to identify your weaknesses and be committed to working on them. If you don’t like to be perpetually striving, warns Davey, don’t go work in a high-performance organization. “We call it extraordinary for a reason; it’s not for most of us,” she says.

And then there’s Magic Johnson

After explaining his approach to a hypothetical basketball game with his mother, Johnson tells the audience about an actual game he played against his daughter, when she was 18 and playing on her high school basketball team. Still standing in the audience inches from Nancy, he recounts what happened.

“My wife kept insisting ‘play your daughter one-on-one.’ I don’t want to play her one-on-one. I know who I am. Always remember, if there’s anything you’re going to write down about Magic Johnson, it’s that I know myself. I do a SWOT of myself twice a year [he’s referring to a technique for assessing one’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats] and that’s very important. We all should do a SWOT of ourselves as business leaders. I do that all the time for my business.”

The tangent ends and he’s back to the story about his daughter. “So, I decided to play her. We go to ten, and I let her get to nine. That was hard for me to do, but I let her get to nine. And then,” wait for it, “I crushed her.”

The audience erupts in laughter. Johnson finally bends down to acknowledge the small woman next to him. She appears slightly terrified. “C’mon, Nancy, let’s take a selfie,” Johnson beckons. She agrees.

So are the rest of us doomed to failure?

It’s important to remember, you can have a perfectly fulfilling existence without the must-win mentality of an elite competitor. In fact, many of us do.

As Davey says, “Those who want to sleep in, who want to consider factors beyond pure output, who let our kids win when we play basketball…. we can be strong performers with great careers and lives, but we just won’t compete with those who will do and sacrifice anything to win.”

Thankfully, most of us are okay with that.