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The (Bleep)ing Boss

“Bowling is by far the most popular participatory sport in America.  More Americans bowled last year than voted.”  
-Robert Putnam, Harvard University, author of “Bowling Alone”



If you’re at Blockbuster and all the Oscar contenders are checked out, and you’re reduced to considering a Pauly Shore marathon, then I have a movie suggestion for you:  “A League of Ordinary Gentlemen,” released on DVD last year.  Yes, “ordinary” gentlemen.  I know how ridiculous this is going to sound, but it’s about the revival of the Professional Bowlers Association and it’s terrific stuff.  Really.   It even has an intriguing business/management backstory.  

In 2000, three former Microsoft executives bought the PBA for a mere five mil.  (That’s probably less than the rounding error when figuring Bill Gates’ net worth.)  They immediately hired a Nike exec, Steve Miller, to be the CEO, and the filmmakers are there to document many of his meetings and speeches, making him one of the stars of the documentary.  Sure, the plot revolves mostly around the bowlers, but I was riveted by the CEO.  I kept wondering how anybody, especially some former Microsoft guys, could pick this blathering egomaniac.

OK, so maybe it was just me.  After all, I was feeling a smidge testy because Mrs. Dauten repeatedly opined as to how the PBA’s leading bowler, Walter Ray Williams, a guy with a degree in physics, was “so incredibly boring” and “a personality gutter ball”, remarks that put me off, commencing as they did just as I had been thinking that he reminded me of me.  

But back to the CEO.  He was one of those guys who speak with great intensity, as if conveying wisdom straight from God, then you realize he’s really saying nothing, a Moses who forgot the tablets.  For instance, just before the first televised competition, he gives a pep talk to the bowlers that included this:  “You need to be yourself.  You need to be as much of yourself as you possibly can.”

That statement, however, was an improvement over his remarks in his first pre-season meeting with the bowlers, where he builds to these final sentences: “Let me close with one last comment.  Together, we got a chance.  Separately, we have no [bleep]ing chance whatsoever.  So either we’re in this together, or you can kiss my [bleep].  Thanks.  Have a good day, fellas.”  He immediately received a “standing ho”; that is, scattered ho-hum applause as people stood up and looked for the bagels or the exit.

You might think that such a remark was a slip – not so much Freudian as “Kerry-ian,” an attempt at humor that fell flat -- but no, we next see Miller offering self-congratulations:  “I feel like in retrospect now I was able to get to a place I wanted to get, to a passion level, to a passion decibel, I hadn’t been before, to an explanation decibel I hadn’t been before, to a clarity I hadn’t been before. I was able to challenge; I was able to cajole; and then I was able to hug and to love.”

Maybe it was just the film’s editing, but we get from him no thought as to how the audience reacted, or what he learned from questions or comments, none of the stuff I am used to seeing in the great ones.  For contrast, consider Doug Ducey, the CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, whose Communications guy, Kevin Donnellan, tells me that after every speech Ducey asks, “How could it have gone better?” Donnellan added, “Doug always seems disappointed if I can’t come up with ways to improve.”  

Gifted bosses know how to separate themselves from the performance, and know that their success is what they communicated, not what they said.  There’s a philosophy of business in that, of life.

So while the movie worked toward bowling’s World Championship, I was waiting to see it they had those “what became of” title cards at the end.  While I won’t impinge on the main plot by telling you what became of the bowlers, I will tell you that the epilogue includes this:  “Under Steve’s leadership, the PBA’s ratings continue to climb.  However, pro bowling has yet to reclaim the cultural prominence it once enjoyed.”  Ah, the power of “however.”  And I can add another one:  However, while Miller is still on the PBA’s board, he has since resigned as CEO.

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Dale Dauten is the founder of The Innovators’ Lab.  His latest book is “(Great) Employees Only: How Gifted Bosses Hire and De-Hire Their Way to Success” (John Wiley & Sons).  Please write to him in care of King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th ST, 15th Fl, New York, NY 10019, or at dale@dauten.com.

© 2007 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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