John Amaechi OBE - Interview with Lisa Jenkins - 15th November 2011
John Amaechi OBE is a retired American-born British basketball player who currently works as a psychologist, educator and political activist in Europe and the United States.
Amaechi now has a portfolio career as a broadcaster, consultant and academic, working on coverage of a weekly NBA basketball game on UK television channel Five and providing co-commentary for the BBC at the 2008 Olympic Games in addition. .Amaechi owns Amaechi Performance Systems, which is a consultancy working with numerous bluechip brands to improve leadership and communication skills and organisational diversity. John is a member of the American Psychological Association, the British Psychological Society (BPS), the BPS Division of Organisational Psychology and the BPS Psychological Testing Centre. Most recently, John became a Senior Fellow at the centre for Emotional Literacy and Personal Development at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) in the United Kingdom.
Where are you now and what are you working on, at the moment?
Amaechi: Physically, I’m all over the place. I’m in Manchester today, but I’m in Southampton tomorrow. Next week, I’m in Monaco. I’m a psychologist who works within organisations; helping them deal with performance, morale issues, issues of recruitment, retention, on the business side. [I’m also] working with schools and some universities on their student and pupil engagement. So it’s pretty wide-ranging stuff. We also have a speech writing element; we write speeches for a number of large corporations and individuals who are heads of large corporations and also some politicians.
Because your work is so far-reaching, could you tell me what some of your favourite areas of work are?
Amaechi: I think the work I’m doing in schools, in terms of student engagement. In terms of making secondary schools and some universities, [they] have an atmosphere which is more conducive to lots of different types of people coming together and having a successful experience. I suppose that’s something that always feels really powerful.
Do you consider yourself a role model, on a day-to-day basis? Or do people say that you are?
Amaechi: You don’t have a choice about being a role model. The moment you are visible and behave a way in public, people will look at that and some people will emulate it. If one person follows you, you’re a role model. Every parent is a role model and not just for their kids, but for their friends’ kids, as well. And I just know that because I’ve been on Oprah, I’m on television in Britain probably every week, because I’m outspoken, I blog and write for The Times and such and such, that people listen. So I’m a role model by default. I’ve got to admit, I love it. To be in a position where very little effort, on your part - the way you look at somebody, a few carefully-chosen words, a hug and a handshake - make a difference. That’s like being magic.
Which brings me nicely into my next question. The piece you did for Sunday Morning Rise - where you spoke about sports role models, particularly how someone can be a footballer or golfer and do what you like, some sleep around etc. - and how many of our young people are taking notice of that. Obviously, you do think it’s a problem, but could you expand on that?
Amaechi: I know that there are good role models out there, but what I also know is that the vast majority of household names don’t live up to the billing. So the problem is, I know there are some young Premiership players, for example, who aren’t superstars yet. Perhaps they’re reserves who come off the bench and also ran on the first team, but these guys are out in their communities doing stuff. They’re saying the right things, they’re treating people the right way, but the column inches goes to the superstars. And I’ll add this too, there are superstars in others sport who are great too, but unfortunately, Lacrosse doesn’t get on the back pages. Neither does netball and neither does basketball, when there are a couple of good role models in basketball.
So there are always sports that have to be more vigilant - Rugby, I’ve always seen what they’ve been doing; and football - and I think when you have this much power, you are bound to a contract and part of that contract is that people will look to you as inspiration - whether in a positive way or a negative. They’ll look at how, if you’re a straight man, how you treat women in relationships. They’ll look to how you treat the people around you. Are you arrogant or benevolent? They will look to these things to know how to behave, if they ever receive a measure of success.
So based on the current climate, how do you think it will effect the next generation? Will it be a decade of people that don’t treat anyone around them with respect ?
Amaechi: I would say, if we’re not very careful at looking at the beginnings - the academies in football, the Rugby clubs that have promising juniors coming through, the national team programmes for lots of different sports. If we don’t start looking at the holistic education of the young people there, I don’t just mean in terms of classes and schools, we’re going to end up with increasingly-poor role models and examples. Let’s not forget in football and rugby, these people aren’t role models just for kids, there are grown men and women in the stands watching them.
About you OBE in June, was it a great honour? Has anything changed since, if at all?
Amaechi: It’s still weird. It’s a very unusual thing, I’m somewhat controversial and prickly and I don’t make any apologies for it, but because of that, I never expect to get any public recognition and so when I did, it was very lovely. I’m actually going to receive my medal next week; I’m going to the palace, so it’s all moving. It’s odd. But because of the type of person I am, it makes me want to do more now.
And because you haven’t gone down the traditional route, in terms of your life, I think it’s good that you don’t fit into any particular box.
Amaechi: I think that is important. It’s good that people see lots of different types of people that are a mish-mash of lots of different things.
Talking about your OBE and going to the palace, do you think certain elements of society and government really have a clue about what’s going on in the UK today?
Amaechi: No is the short answer. I think that it’s very cliché at the moment to say the Lib-Con Coalition is out-of-touch, but I don’t necessarily think it’s that they’re out-of-touch, it’s that they’re unaware of the fact that they bring a lot of baggage to the equation, when they start thinking about young people, poor people, black people and whatever else. So experience in life gives you the lens, through which you see the world.
When you have a Conservative cabinet where the majority of people came from just one college of Oxford, then the way they see the world is uniform - they all see things in the same way and they all slap each other on the back - and they don’t have enough people telling them, “I know you that’s how you see things through your glasses, but try on my glasses. Try to see it the way I see it, from a different background” I think that changes it. Then all of a sudden, you stop seeing this ever so prevalent talk of people who have a great sense of entitlement and don’t want to work for it and just want to go on Big Brother. This is the rolling rhetoric, right now, that I think is nonsense. We all know there’s a minority of people like that, but anyone who’s been to Hackney in London and Moss Side in Manchester and deprived wards across the country know that there are families that graft. And they’re far more prevalent than these two families who skive.
So for the next 10 years or so, what do you think we need to improve the self-worth in our next generation of people? What can be done to help them?
Amaechi: I think there are a number of things. I, personally, would like us to focus a lot on speech and communication in schools. I think that our ability to personally connect with each is vital. I’m not one of these people that thinks because of Facebook or Twitter, that we can’t communicate anymore. That’s just an alternative form of communication, but the inter-personal stuff is more important. Helping young people, not only top communicate with their peers, but with people that have authority is one of the skills that - if you work with the Institute of Directors or the Chamber of Commerce - they think are missing. Not specific skills in their industry, the inter-personal skills to communicate with each other and to deal with conflict is missing, so we need to introduce that.
I’m part of a centre for emotional literacy learning and research in the UK and the other fellows and myself are keen to introduce the idea of emotional literacy into schools, because it works on a lot of these levels - both with communication and with reducing conflict and helping people to manage their own emotions and understand those of others. This is a vital step for young people and the future.