It was Seve wot won it
Watching the coverage of Europe’s amazing win in the Ryder Cup over the weekend, it was interesting to see the ‘It was Seve wot won it’ narrative emerging over the final day. As the impossible became improbable, then possible, then reality, the players representation of Ballesteros’ influence developed from grandfather to Godfather; from ancestral inspiration to something more potent and present. In their comments to reporters, the players were not simply paying tribute to a legacy, they were trying to convey how they had harnessed and expressed Seve’s spirit of indomitability.
Matthew Syed in today’s Times is probably not alone in expressing his discomfort about the “quasi-religious” feel that seemed to take hold – there are certainly grounds for skepticism about the metaphysics of Seve’s actual influence – but for me it spoke to a broader truth about group behaviour: if we want to achieve the improbable, then we need to believe in something more than ourselves.
There’s a lovely quote from When We Were Kings (the documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle). Muhammad Ali is asked how he can possibly believe he’ll beat George Foreman. Foreman is bigger, stronger and younger. He’s the reigning world champion, having just destroyed the previously undefeated Joe Frazier, knocking the great man down six times in the first two rounds. Ali’s response:
“Allah, God, I'm his tool. God got in me on purpose for my people. God has made this man look like a little kid. His so-called right hand ain't nothing now, I don't even feel 'em! I walk right in and take my shots because I have God in my mind. I'm thinking of my people being free and I can help with just one fight. He looks little in comparison to what I'm getting from it! But if I think about just me… George Foreman knocked out Joe Frazier like he was God… then I go in like the rest of them and get scared.”
This morning I was lucky enough to hear a financial services organisation launch their new story – a relatively small group of wonderful people who face an enormous challenge. We’re living at a time of real uncertainty when powerful, global forces can quickly come crashing down on the real lives of individuals. At this time more than ever, I think people want to feel part of a group and for this group to be successful I think it needs a story that makes it meaningful for people to bind themselves to the collective. People want to work for an organisation that can capture an historic pride and inheritance, but which looks through the current challenges to a vision of what we together can achieve.
I can imagine, 20 years from now when they’re launching their next groundbreaking product, that Apple employees might speak about the influence of Steve Jobs in the same tones as the European golfers on Sunday. The interesting point for me is whether this notion, this idea that we need to belong to a bigger movement, might be critical in inspiring people to achieve things that atomised, rational individuals would dismiss as impossible.