Real Leaders

5 Great Leadership Lessons from Cleveland’s Championship

Leading teams to sustained success is the essential skill of 21st century leaders.  This is not easy. It’s not easy because the way most work gets done in large organizations is like playing basketball.

What I mean by this is that in basketball all the players play offense and defense. All players need to have a wide skill set that involves shooting, rebounding, passing and defending. The game constantly flows and there are only a few time outs.  Decision-making is instantaneous and the need to keep everyone fully engaged is essential to success.

Winning teams are constantly innovating and getting better because once opposing teams figure out how to defend your style of play you are toast. The best leader-players of basketball teams gets everyone involved and is constantly putting other players in position to contribute their best skills. In fact one of the measures of basketball greatness is achieving what’s called a triple-double.  That’s when a player has at least 10 rebounds, 10 assists (for helping other players score) and 10 points or more.  This demonstrates fabulous versatility and the total command of the skill set necessary to lead the team.  LeBron James just had a massive triple-double in game seven of the NBA championship.

If you’re sick of sports analogies and wondering why I am even bringing this up it’s because I have recently been training members of siloed departments to work together as informal cross functional teams so better work can get done fast without drama. This is not easy because most organizations pursue work more like a football team.

Football teams are run as strong authoritarian structures.  The coaches have a playbook that players are required to memorize. In each play every player has a specific job to do.  Their coach tells them not to worry about the other teammates’ responsibilities but rather to “just do their job.” Quarterbacks don’t even call most plays. Coaches who often sit in press boxes high above the field send in plays via headphones to the quarterback. They do this because they believe they have more expertise and a better vision of the entire game than the players on the field. There is little flow to the game. In most cases between each play there is a huddle in which the quarterback relays the play called by the coach.  Then each player is expected to recall their memorized responsibility and do only what is required of them.

Well that might work well for football, in in which there is only an average of 18 minutes of action for every 3½ hour game (TV time). But In the rock’n roll world of highly disruptive business teamwork does not resemble football. In fact the football model of leadership pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with authoritarian leaders trying to lead agile companies.

With this in mind I recently did some research to discover the common principles of extraordinary successful basketball coaches.  People like John Wooden of UCLA, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and our successful Olympic Teams, Phil Jackson of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers, and Pat Summit coach of the record-breaking Lady Vols at the University of Tennessee. Here are the 5 rules for success I discovered.

  1. Align your ruling priorities. When you’re in a situation where you have little authority, position power or control over another’s work schedule, it is vital to invest your time in trust-building and goal clarity with your cross functional teammates. This is best done by vividly creating a logic chain between your organization’s business strategy, current tactics and critical priorities.  Often you will have to make a case that failing to align around your goal will cause significant business failures such as customer loss, poor product quality, unnecessary costs and profit failure.  You will need to point out that the cost of failing is real, measurable and perhaps catastrophic.  Without goal alignment there is simply no teamwork. This is not a one time effort. In all businesses external pressures are constantly shifting so your attention on aligning priorities and goals is vital.
  1. Do more than you promised. Make promises carefully and keep them faithfully. Trust is built on making and keeping promises.  Today I find many professionals and managers being just a little evasive. “I will try or do my best” is not a promise.  It’s a pre-excuse for failure.  When you make and keep important promises you will attract other high-performing individuals who want to do extraordinary work.
  1. No excuses, no blaming. The core of personal and mutual accountability is committing to put forth your best efforts until you succeed.  Remember, failure plus a good excuse is still failure. In cross-functional teamwork excuses and blame are epidemic. If you are leading the team make sure you cut off any expressions or conversations that allow people to wallow excuses or blame.  If the goal is worthwhile then it is worth everyone’s best efforts until success is achieved.
  1. Focus on solving the “problem.” Significant goal achievement rests in your ability to overcome obstacles and solve difficult problems. Great team leaders reframe the work of the team by focusing team members on the few big problems that need to be solved to achieve extraordinary success.  This is not a negative way of pursuing great goals. Rather, it is the way life is set up to help us grow and become more capable and wise.  Success is primarily the result of problem-solving. (That’s was LeBron James’ mindset to overcome a 3-1 win-loss disadvantage to win the championship.)
  1. Work with enthusiasm and celebrate successes every day. I have done several major leadership–culture transformation projects for companies lead by engineers or financial executives. Generally these types of people put most of their attention on finding flaws and identifying risk.  I found them to be very bad at celebrating or even experiencing genuine positive emotion when they’ve achieved great goals.  This is not good. In fact a recent study released by the University of California Berkeley found that teams that both verbally and physically celebrated successful performance or goal achievement during the actual game won more games than teams who were more circumspect or “professional.” Turns out that chest bumping and high-fives trigger the release of endorphins and the bonding neurotransmitter that sustains high levels of motivation . . . so when was the last time you celebrated?


When trying to lead cross-functional teams in which your power and authority is minimal, the depth of mutual commitment driven by the quality of trust and positive personal relationships is simply the fuel that ignites the rocket.

So Consider this this…

What team are you trying to lead?  Maybe it’s a work team or your family.  How much effort are you putting in to the 5 rules of team success?  If you chose just one rule to invest more time and effort in, what will the result likely be?

Do it. It will be worth it. There is something simply amazing about engaging others to achieve great and worthy goals.


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