Leadership Lessons from March Madness

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Image courtesy of J Rosenfeld on Flickr

It’s inevitable. Once March Madness begins, workplace productivity plunges. Office pools and brackets push aside work schedules, and employees spend more time around the water cooler discussing teams and players than working. Bosses tear their hair out trying to get the job done. And forget about fighting it. This is one of the most exciting spectator sports events of the year. Literally millions will watch the country’s best college basketball teams fight for dominance and the chance to become this year’s NCAA champion.

But there’s more to learn here than the game of basketball. You can pick up many valuable leadership lessons from the NCAA tournament.       As a huge basketball fan and former coach, let me share a few leadership lessons you can take away March Madness.

1. Just as the morale of a basketball team must start with the coach, in business morale must start at the top and work its way through all levels of the organization. Dispassionate leaders pass their lack of engagement onto their staff, and that sets the stage for high employee turnover. Employees, like basketball players, respond to leaders who infuse their own level of passion into their teams, resulting in improved workplace engagement and productivity.

Fortunately, work passion is an achievable, do-it-yourself process. Always remember that it must be self-initiated. On the basketball court, no player has been tasked with the job of pleasing the coach. The same holds true in business. It’s your job as leader to make it happen.

2. Basketball players learn quickly from their coaches that attitude is everything. Successful leaders, like basketball coaches, are ambitious and self-motivated. They wake up each morning with a positive attitude that carries them throughout the rest of the day.

Each leader at work has a similar choice. We can either wake up with a positive attitude or grumble and groan with a negative attitude. I look at it this way: If I wake up above ground in the morning and can see myself in the mirror, I’m positive. Positive attitudes can take us a long way; leaders with positive attitudes can take everybody else around them on the same journey. They’re the pied piper of business.

Success requires a whatever-it-takes attitude; whatever it takes to get the job done, within ethical business constraints. There are no shortcuts. Ethical business constraints is a key term because we‘ve witnessed, over the last few years, despicable behavior, with the fall of Anderson, Enron, and many other companies.

3. Development is key to keeping promising basketball players engaged and motivated. The same holds true in business. By encouraging and providing ongoing personnel development, you create a pipeline of talented people who are full of ideas, thoughts, and inspiration. This sends a strong, motivating message to each employee: We care and we’re willing to invest in you. You’ll then be rewarded with tremendous engagement and enthusiasm, positioning your organization as an employer of choice.

4. On the basketball court and in business, teams fail when players lack the time and training required to complete their assignments. As leader of your organization, here’s how to prevent it: Perform a reality check. Ask yourself how much time and how much training your people need to fulfill the demands you place on them. Next, determine whether your team, based on members’ experience levels, requires more, less, or the same amount of time and training. Seek input from team members, asking them to honestly assess how long specific components of the task will take. Your goal is to develop an accurate, realistic timeline.

5. Team captains in basketball and in business should be one of the most respected members of the group. If you have chosen a team captain in your organization to lead a task, allow this person to delegate responsibilities as he or she sees fit. Make sure the captain knows the difference between delegation and abdication. The team captain’s job is to set the vision, delineate strategies (often with the help of other team members), and provide the conditions and support needed for success.

As for autonomy, don‘t micromanage your team (or team captain). Give members an attainable goal and enough autonomy to complete it. Monitor progress, but avoid being overly intrusive. You’re a manager—not a babysitter.

Let team members feel empowered enough to embrace responsibilities and enjoy a sense of ownership. Remind the team that you are available if anyone needs a consultation.

6. Before a successful basketball coach blames individual players for failing to handle his position well, he needs to assess first whether he fulfilled his responsibilities. No different in business. Did you, leader of your organization, clearly explain your goals and expectations? Did you communicate effectively? Did you ask team members to describe, in their own words, their perceived role in completion of the task? Did you regularly check in with team members to ensure they were on the right course? Did you follow up, as necessary? Did you inspire them? Building high-performing teams requires open communication, constructive dialogue, cooperation, and appreciation of what each person brings to the team.

Now, let’s get back to March Madness. What are your final four choices? Tell me in the comments

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