Fickle ingredients can create amazing chemistry

Column by Michael Alcorn
Posted 10/24/18

Have you ever given much thought to chemistry? No, not your high school class that involved memorizing valence shells and balancing equations. And not the kind that was really on your mind during …

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Fickle ingredients can create amazing chemistry


Have you ever given much thought to chemistry? No, not your high school class that involved memorizing valence shells and balancing equations. And not the kind that was really on your mind during said class: the chemistry of attraction with the cute guy/girl in the front row.

No, the kind of chemistry I’m thinking of is the sort that is much less scientific than class and a lot more important than what was actually happening in class. It’s the magic ingredient that makes groups of people effective together. One of the easiest places to see chemistry is the field of athletic competition: think of John Stockton and Karl Malone, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, or our own Nathan McKinnon and Gabe Landeskog. All examples of players who are great as individuals, but elevate to an elite level with a teammate who seems to have a second sense about the other person.

There are times and places where chemistry isn’t just about having the best people with the most compatible personalities. Doris Kearns Goodwin profiled Abraham Lincoln’s war cabinet in her brilliant “Team of Rivals”: men who were strong, powerful individuals who probably shouldn’t have been good together, but were, instead, brilliant. Or look at the Beatles: nobody ever claimed Ringo was the world’s greatest drummer, but, as a part of the Fab Four, he was indispensable.

And, sometimes, chemistry doesn’t work exactly how you think it would. The Duke men’s basketball team won their first national championships in 1991 and 1992. One of the players on that team was a guy named Christian Laettner, a phenomenally talented power forward who had, shall we say, a rough time getting along with others. He was the thorn in the opponent’s sides.

Problem with him was that he was also a bit of a thorn in the sides of his own teammates. Not terribly well liked. Now, you might think that would disrupt the chemistry of the team, which would make it harder to play and win together. But Coach K had a different take on it: he described Laettner as “the catalyst”: in some chemical reactions, an ingredient has to be added which will spark the primary reaction.

Laettner was that guy: he would make his own teammates so mad at him that they would work harder in practice, go faster in games, and play with an edge which helped carry them to consecutive National Championships.

There are also myriad examples of times groups of great individuals are brought together, but, for some reason, it never gels. Whatever chemistry should spark the group to success somehow just doesn’t work. Like when Frank Sinatra recorded duets with Bono; or Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp as a romantic couple; or Carmelo Anthony and…well, really anybody.

The hardest part about chemistry is how terribly fragile it can be. The first four seasons of “The West Wing” were incredible television—maybe the best show on television for that period of time. But the primary writer of the show, Aaron Sorkin, was a difficult person to work with, who regularly missed deadlines and disrupted the production schedule. So the network, um, made an arrangement with him, and he left the show. It was never the same, even being exiled to Sunday nights for its last season. And you never really know what it’s going to be that will disrupt that magic: even something as seemingly trivial as adding a new player to an undermanned team can sometimes upset that difficult, delicate balance.

One of the most important functions of leadership is putting together exceptional teams, whether that’s in sports, business, entertainment, or any other industry. And, I believe, the least understood element of that function is managing chemistry. It’s not always enough to simply aggregate talent. Smart managers are constantly monitoring their team’s functionality, and adjusting their personnel until the mix of elements sparks a successful reaction. So be smart …. never work with Carmelo Anthony.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Charon’s Blade,” will be available soon.” His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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