Leadership Lessons From Sports Teams

Leadership advice always draws attention, so many publications weigh in. One that usually wouldn’t catch my eye appeared in USA Today from a professor at University of Texas at San Antonio about their NBA team. Sometimes reading about different environments raises different thoughts.

The article is a pretty good list of principles gleaned from the team’s approach that I’ve summarized below with some added comments where things might need more thought:

1. Build around your star employees. Fine, build on strengths is well established, but let’s be very clear – not if your stars are prima donnas. Catering to is not the same as building on. Everyone needs to be focused on the common goal, the best overall results and the teamwork needed to get there. If a few key players front the process, we can’t forget the back of the house support either – coaches, marketers, admin people, even facilities and so forth. It isn’t only the visible ‘stars’ but those who are terrific at whatever their roles who need to be built around. A problem with short lists of principles like this tends to be the ‘either/or’ sound they set up giving quick impressions that some may easily interpret to supportbasketball teamwork bad behavior.

1a. Either fire or, better yet, don’t hire prima donnas. I have to add this. It’s worth making a separate point that know-it-alls at any level can destroy teamwork and results fast. To drive home the point one only has to read about the Miami Heat’s struggle to the top, to find better teamwork versus the newcomer teamwork stars of San Antonio. Similar comments have been made about many teams in many sports. Even a small edge with slightly less talented players working as a team makes all the difference.

2. Complement stars with support specialists. Yes, moving in the right direction, but still focused on what’s visible on the court.

3. Identify talent others miss. Now we’re getting places. Some of that talent is right in your operation today as well as discoverable in less than glamorous sources others discount. In other words – don’t just troll competitors and offer higher salaries, though that can be an option occasionally.

4. Prevent employee burnout. Again, not just with stars, but as a broad, basic principle this is very important. Sometimes in sports I think owners and managers burn out faster than anyone, always on deck to face the public, becoming rigid from endless criticism so they fall prey to kneejerk reactions brought on by an excess of limelight. Once again the benefit of being part of a team, having support from others who can share the burdens of decisions might help, though that’s not a typical model at the top of many organizations. We want someone to blame and fail to see this, too, causes burnout.

5. Create opportunities to develop future [star] employees. Amen, too many businesses rely just on the stars continuously and both they and the up-and-coming people who never get a chance suffer.

6.-7. Mix old and young – really better to say ‘diversity’ across a broad range of factors to maximize the best of everyone – which plays into Create shared purpose and interdependence (ie: teamwork, need we say it again?)

8.-9. Constantly renew and recognize humans are unpredictable and thus need continual attention and management.

I can’t agree more with the article’s final sentence: “However, effective human resource management enables basketball teams and businesses to maximize their chances of winning.”

So, did I benefit from skimming one more article in the endless flood about leadership? I believe so. The good ones make me ponder just a bit, even if for just a moment, where I stand on what’s effective. What they leave out or mention secondarily often triggers thoughts that firm up my resolve and suggest slightly new ways to argue the points I think are often lost in the debates about what’s most important.

More and more I’ve come to believe the most overlooked point in leadership literature is this article’s last point – effective human resources management is critical to results and that means constantly paying attention to the unpredictability of human behavior, our individual needs and states of mental and physical health. These can be the very things many managers at all levels, and very often the aggressive ones who fight to the top, want to ignore or actively campaign against.

Dealing with the human side of enterprise can be frustrating, time-consuming and may appear time-wasting to executives in a hurry to get further up the ladder of success either personally or dragging their companies with them. But failing to pay attention or strategize these requirements can devastate an organization and demoralize those in it faster than just about any other type of crisis. That’s a key reason our surveys show so much disengagement.

It’s not like these principles of leadership are especially new, nor are they even especially difficult to carry out well. But they do seem to require constant reminders, reinforcement and clarification so they don’t encourage the wrong behaviors, like focusing on prima donnas rather than the true stars who are often ‘humble,’ to apply an increasingly common descriptor for the most effective leaders. We’re all different and having more ego need is a valid difference. But if you’re truly a star you pretty much get more than your share quite naturally and can afford to be humble. If you’re still ego driven after that – watch out. It may seem a small point to harp on, but one only has to look around, not just in sports, to see examples of where it drives its wedge into otherwise high potential operations.

It’s often been observed that Wayne Gretzky built up an amazing number of assists in addition to personal goals scored. Nothing prevents a star from helping team members at least as much as they help themselves.