Falling off a cliff

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There’s no doubt that most of business, sport and life generally is played in the mind. What fascinates me are those moments of madness, when what has gone before is seemingly irrelevant, and pressure leads to craziness.

Take the incredible implosion of French golfer Jean van de Velde at the last hole of the British Open in 1999 at Carnoustie. He’d played the hole brilliantly on the 3 previous days. The only difference now was he was playing the last of 72 holes for a major golf crown, and he was 3 shots ahead of all rivals. On a par 4, he could have taken a 6 and still won the title. Maybe that thought crept into his mind as he took a driver on the tee. (A simple 5 iron might have been a better option.) As he put his driver off into the semi rough, the sensible 2nd shot would have been to chip back onto the fairway, chip again onto the green and (at worst) 2 putt for a 5, to win by 2 shots. He chose instead to go for the green over the rough, a pond and various bunkers. His second roared up into the grandstand and ricocheted nastily into some heavy rough, still short of the green. The pond was now directly in front, and those nasty bunkers lay between it and the sanctity of the dance floor. Again, the wiser choice would be to chip to safety, chip on, 2 putt and still win. Sadly, again, he went for an almost impossible flop chip and put it in the pond. Dropping out, and with a penalty shot he was now playing his fifth shot and put it in the green side bunker. He chipped out from there, and putted in for a 7, to go into a 3-way playoff which he duly lost.

What makes someone collapse like this, right at a crucial moment? Why do sporting sides suddenly collapse, in near panic, seemingly snatching defeats from the jaws of victory? On Friday night I watched live as English keeper-batsman Jos Buttler went almost trance like to a hundred off 46 balls, the fastest ever one day 100 (beating his own record by 15 shots). Try as they might the Pakistan bowlers could not put the ball anywhere into a position from which he could not score a boundary, and the harder they tried, the further the ball sailed over the boundary. ‘The wheels have fallen off’, remarked a commentator.

Many a sports psychologist has analysed these situations, and offered expensive advice. Sport is mainly played ‘between the ears’, and those that can get through these crucial, tough moments can be in high demand in a sporting and (post sporting) business life. For in business, calmness when under fire, deftness of touch when all those about you are simply losing it, is perhaps the greatness skill. No one makes sales in a blind panic. Just as the junior cricket team will look to their coach when things are going badly, and the wickets are clattering, so staff will look to the executives and management for guidance and reassurance when things are getting difficult. It’s when the real leaders come to the fore.

Catastrophe theory (which came to prominence in the 1970s) tried to explain how some systems could dissolve to nothing from a seemingly serene equilibrium. How could stock market contagion suddenly take hold, wiping billions of shareholder value in a few hours? How could a building suddenly collapse, having been standing for years? How could Roberto Baggio miss that world cup final penalty goal (as in, miss the goal completely, kicking it into the crowd?)

In these days of fast communications, you can see how economic or business events can take hold quickly, like a wind swept forest fire. The dotcom crash in Easter 2000 or the GFC of Sept 2008 felt like there was free fall in stock markets around the world. Whatever logic had been holding them up had simply vanished in seconds. Some bad piece of news (in the GFC’s case, the Lehman Brothers collapse) had been the final straw that led to a new reality suddenly appearing and everyone running for the door. In the dotcoms’ case it was the popping of the reality bubble that had surmised that all these businesses had to do was grow their visitor traffic and revenues (no worries over losses) and all would be well. As revenues slowed and no profits appeared, the previous wisdom was now thought to be akin to the Emperor’s New Clothes. So many had been naked all along.

When things are collapsing, it is easy to get caught out in all the wreckage. Often we go too far, and markets over correct on the down side. When things are exuberant, they go too high on the upside (catastrophe in reverse). During the recent (2005-2012) mining boom in Western Australia, things got a little crazy for a while, and people got used to the crazy. 18 year olds earned 6-figure salaries right out of school driving a truck on a mine site, while you couldn’t get a tradie for love nor money in the capital city of Perth (they’d all gone up north). House prices trebled. The “cashed up bogan” (CUB) became a worn out cliche. WA people did not like to call it a boom, for bust follows boom, and liked to refer to the situation as the “new reality”. It was not. It was a super cycle of immense power, from which we are still reaping the benefits and will do for some time. Even as the mining growth slows, we are left with an industry in WA three times the size of 10 years ago. It’s not going away. People should not desert mining any more so than when they did during the 1st dotcom boom. You should look in all directions in an economy, because it is wide and varied and complex. But you should also look ahead, not get too involved in the overly short term analysis of those that over shoot one way and the next (blinded by that screaming headline).

Lest you fall foul of the next catastrophe – be in on the golf course, the cricket pitch or in business.

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