The NFL Draft, CEOs and Who Gets a Chance in the World

Kyler Murray was the #1 pick in the NFL draft last night. He just won the Heisman Trophy as the best college player. He’s dynamic. He’s exciting. He’s talented. He’s 5’10”. For non-sports buffs that might not sound like a big deal. But the average height of the top 40 quarterbacks last year was 6’3”.

This isn’t some new development. All the historical greats have been tall. If you don’t know football, all the quarterbacks you’ve heard of are tall men.

· Peyton Manning? 6’5”

· Tom Brady? 6’4”

· Joe Montana? 6’2”

· Terry Bradshaw? 6’3”

· John Elway? 6’3”

· Brett Favre? 6’2”

· Dan Marino? 6’4”

You may not realize it when they’re standing next to mammoth offensive linemen or hulking defensive linemen trying to kill them, but these are huge men.

So how did Kyler Murray get drafted #1 when he’s 5 full inches shorter than the standard bearers?

Because of Baker Mayfield.

Baker Mayfield is 6’ ½”. He won the Heisman in his last season as a starter, just like Kyler Murray. He’s dynamic and exciting, just like Kyler Murray. He went to Oklahoma and threw the ball all over the field, just like Kyler Murray. He’s confident and brash, just like Kyler Murray. And he’s short, just like Kyler Murray. And so he was the #1 pick, just like Kyler Murray. And he had a great season last year, bringing energy and excitement and wins to a team that hadn’t had any for a while. The NFL, like all of America, is a copycat culture, so they looked for the next “Baker Mayfield type”.

But then how did Baker Mayfield, too short to play the position according to most talent evaluators, get to be the #1 pick?

Because of Russell Wilson.

You may know him as the 2019 entrée into code switching for a whole bunch of white people who can’t understand why the guy that sounds like Tiger Woods talking to CBS after the game sounds like a quiet storm DJ when his wife is braiding his hair at home. But he’s also one of the best players in football.

He’s a 5’11” quarterback. He was dynamic and exciting and talented and all the same things these other guys are. But in 2012 when teams were deciding whether to give him a shot, the height issue was all we heard.

From his NFL.com draft profile:

From NFLMocks:

And @12thMan_Rising, the Seahawks biggest Twitter fan account, said:

Russell Wilson, the guy who would be good if only he could grow, ended up being good anyway. The next time a guy with a similar profile was available, they used the newly available data and made a different decision.

This is what we want people to do, right? Use the available data to make informed decisions. When more data becomes available, update their estimations and make even better decisions. This is a great example of people learning, growing and doing better.

Article over. Happiness and joy for all.

Maybe not.

I don’t think this is an example of the scientific method at work. I think it’s an example of bias. This isn’t people using new information to make new decisions. This is people looking for another version of the thing they know.

It’s why the old adage, “people hire people who look like them” isn’t true. It’s never been true. People don’t hire people who “look like them”. If they did, you’d have a 90% black police force in Detroit. You’d have no white professors at HBCUs. You’d have no white soccer coaches in Africa. People hire people who they think look the part. Opportunities, advancement and chances don’t always go to the best person. They don’t always go to the most qualified person. They often go to the person who looks like, or talks like, or acts like they belong.

Think about the people who get to advance where you work. Think about the traits they have in common. Or if, like me, you’ve moved to a lot of different companies, think about the leadership at those places. Did they all look alike?

When you turn 18 in Sweden there’s a mandatory military enlistment test. It allows us a huge set of data that can tell us a lot about who ends up winning in business and who doesn’t. Some students at Harvard Business School used that data to study life outcomes for a class of people. They eliminated people who were of a certain income level. They eliminated people who were of a certain education level. They eliminated people who were of a certain region. They eliminated women. Even if a socialist-adjacent land like Sweden there’s still a class who just don’t have a realistic shot at success. Their group is a lot smaller than ours, but it exists, nonetheless. They were left with a group of quite similar profiles of middle-class to rich white guys and wanted to understand how one rises from that group to become a CEO.

There were three traits most predictive of one growing to that point.

1. What they call non-cognitive abilities. That is, the ability to get along with people and solve problems. This was the most predictive trait.

2. Cognitive abilities. That is, how smart someone is. The CEO class isn’t the smartest group. Those tend to be introverted loners who don’t score very highly on non-cognitive abilities. But the combination of a little above average intelligence and the ability to get along with people works well together.

3. Height. That is, how tall someone is.

Now we can all see how the ability to solve problems and get along with people would be important in a leader. We can also, to a degree, understand how being smart can help one lead. But being tall? I mean, I guess you can pick them out of a crowd, but nobody would argue that tall people are better leaders or have better ideas or are better at managing people.

Why is height so predictive of success?

The for real photo that Google gave me when I looked for “Typical CEO”

Because they look the part. The tall, good-looking guy who people like seems to get ahead. (Though after that photo above we can argue the “good-looking” part) Meritocracy, that ain’t.

Listen, I’m glad Kyler Murray got picked 1st last night. I think it’s great for him and his family. I’m sure he worked really hard to reach this point. I’m happy for Baker Mayfield too. He looks like a star in the making and he’s a lot of fun to watch. But it’s a damn shame that it took Russell Wilson for them to get a chance to shine. Just like it’s a damn shame that the people who don’t fit that mold don’t have the same chance to shine where you work.

Remember, ability is evenly distributed. Opportunity isn’t.