Mar 25

Leadership, Tournament Style

When my wife and I first started dating over twenty years ago, she started to ask me about my sports passions. I reassured her that while I enjoy watching a good game, she would not be a football widow each autumn. I also promised her that she would not loose me to a softball league in the summer. I did forewarn her, however, that each year, the last three weeks of March are sacred to me.

As most of you are aware, since we are in the heart of it right now, those last three weeks represent to me one of our nation’s greatest and purest sporting events – the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. And while I love college basketball, and the family or inter-office bragging rights of having a reasonably intact bracket after the first weekend, the best part about the tournament is watching how it brings out the best in the players, both as athletes and as people.

You’ve probably noticed a trend over the past several years, and that inevitably there are a handful of upsets where a lower seeded team beats a higher seeded team. And while having a team of tremendous athletes is very important, it is mental portion of the game that allows teams to advance. Unlike any other sports championship, the NCAA tournament is an opportunity to showcase teamwork, maturity, and above all, leadership on the basketball court.

Regardless if a program has a marquee, Hall of Famer at the helm like Mike Krzyzewski, or is run by a new up and coming coach, when they are interviewed after a victory, the coaches ultimately talk about the heart that their team played with, the courage to never give up, and the leadership of their starters. Ultimately, a coach can run all the drills they want during practice, and design plays on the fly in a time out huddle, but the leadership of players on the floor, and the ability to execute, is what causes the winners to emerge.

Other than perhaps the most elite programs in the nation, the athletic talent across these the teams in the tournament is fairly consistent. When these upsets happen and otherwise bust up your bracket, the differentiator in most cases was these softer skills. Success occurs when leaders emerge, the players are unselfish, and operate as a cohesive team on the floor. They set aside the odds that are stacked against them, they don’t listen to the nay-sayers that perhaps think they don’t have any business being here, and they welcome the challenge to prove something. Often they come up short, but it’s not for a lack of effort and drive. Those that do pull off an upset, however, have those success traits to thank for their achievement.

Imagine if businesses and communities approached their work and projects in the same manner as college basketball tournament teams. They don’t play for profit margins, these teams play for pride. When the measurement for success is pure and simple, people will bond together, leaders arise, and great things can be accomplished. Once we start to cloud what and how we measure success, it becomes that much more challenging to achieve your goals and objectives.

In the famous 1983 run towards their NCAA Championship, the battle cry of the North Carolina State Wolfpack was “Survive and Advance” – they were an underdog team that rose to the occasion nine times in a row to first win the ACC Tournament, and then on to win the NCAA tournament. They didn’t look ahead to the next game, they focused on the challenge in front of them at that moment, and in each game, a different leader surfaced who helped drive them to victory. The strength of Jim Valvano as the coach of that team was in building a roster of men with character, players that lead by example, and were driven to win. On any given night, they were not the most athletic team on the court, but they played with the most heart.

So for the next two weekends, as you watch your brackets fall apart and your chance at winning your office pool dwindles, embrace the fact that you get to watch teamwork and leadership in sports at its finest. There are many lessons to be learned from these college kids.

The following originally appeared in March 2015 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.