A Leadership Lesson from March Madness

By Jim Whitt

Basketball goes by the alias of March Madness this time of year. The featured attraction is the 68-team field in the men’s NCAA Division I tournament. The rosters of these teams include some superstars who will go on to play professionally. Others on these rosters will go on to coaching careers. Few will do both.

Tony Moss, ESPN senior editor, analyzed the coaches of the 68 teams and ranked them 1 through 68 based on their experience and accomplishments as players. Keep in mind that these are coaches of this season’s best teams based on the fact that they were selected to participate in the tournament that determines the national champion.

Only four of the 68 coaches made the regular season roster of an NBA team as players. Eleven more played professionally in other leagues. Eighteen played division I basketball. Twenty-three played in junior college, lower NCAA levels or in the NAIA. Ten played varsity basketball in high school and two didn’t even play varsity basketball in high school.

So, why isn’t the field of 68 teams loaded with coaches who were superstar players? Obviously, being a great player has little to do with being a great coach. The superstars had a completely different perspective than most players. Their goal was to make a living playing basketball not coaching basketball. Those who were not blessed with that much ability knew their futures would be much different. Some would move on to vocations outside the game. For some, their love of the game would be expressed in helping others play the game.

Coaching requires a different skill-set than playing. It also requires a different mind-set. You understand the path to reaching your potential is by helping others reach their potential.

This applies to leadership in all areas of life. I’ve seen many a star salesperson promoted to sales manager and fail miserably. While the successful salesperson and successful sales manager might share some of the same skill set, they do not always share the same mind-set.

Great coaches, like great leaders, understand their success depends on others’ success. If you trace the paths successful coaches have taken, you’ll discover most worked on the staffs of other great coaches. Johnny Dawkins, University of Central Florida’s (UCF) coach, is one of the four coaches in the tournament who played in the NBA and had a successful career as a player at both the collegiate and professional levels. But I suspect much of his success as a coach has to do with what he learned playing for and as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

One of my favorite scenes from this year’s tournament was immediately following UCF’s loss to Duke in the second round. It went down to the wire with UCF losing by one point after missing a shot in the last second. Dawkins and Krzyzewski shared an emotional embrace after the game. It was a bittersweet victory for Krzyzewski. “I feel bad for Johnny,” Coach K said afterwards. “I’m emotional about it because I love him.”

Johnny Dawkins was a great player and is a great coach. Here’s part of what he told his team in the locker room after the game, “Look, man, it’s going to always end one of two ways when we invest like we invested: celebrating or we’re going to end in tears. We end in tears. That’s because we invested so much in each other and so much in what we were doing. I love you guys. It’s been amazing coaching this group.”

“Johnny’s team was magnificent,” Krzyzewski said. “They were so well prepared. That’s as high a level of any team that we’ve played against all year. They were men.”

Great leaders model the behavior they expect from their followers. Johnny Dawkins’ words about his team were a reflection of Mike Krzyzewski’s words about Johnny Dawkins and his team. A great leader invests in others and they in turn invest in others. And there’s no greater return on investment for a great leader than to see one of his followers become a great leader.

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