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Leadership Transformation

Since it is the height of March Madness, it seems like the right time to share insights gleaned from a very early time in my career, from a basketball coaching legend.

Early in my professional life, I had the opportunity to attend a dinner with Lute Olson, head coach for University of Arizona’s men’s basketball team. He’s since retired, but at the time he was still in this role—one he held for 25 years! Since I completed undergrad at Arizona, it was a total “fanboy” moment. I got a chance to talk to him for a bit, one-on-one, and asked him what he saw as his responsibility as the head of the basketball program. He responded that while winning and results were obviously crucial, they are just a byproduct of him focusing on the right things. When he described these “right things,” I saw how they could directly be applied to the business world as well.

Three Leadership Lessons from the Basketball Court

As head coach Olson believed his primary responsibilities were to:

#1: Protect and evolve the culture of the program.

He recognized that what made the team successful five years ago was not going to help them be successful in another five years. He talked about the importance of creating a clear picture of the future, taking into account what it would take for them to win—not just in the current season, but moving forward as well. He believed the ability to think ahead was key for everyone associated with the program and noted that it was always tough to get buy-in and support from alumni and donors. They had nostalgia for the old ways and were very reluctant to let go of tradition. Which led him into his second point.

#2: Establish a clear and unambiguous view of success and make sure the entire program appropriately celebrates and cherishes the success that they have.

His biggest challenge at that time was getting people to understand that wins were not a foregone conclusion, even against lesser talent. He spoke of a virtuous cycle that develops when you emphasize the importance of proper preparation and focus, which leads to a win, which in turn, validates the preparation. In his mind, a failure to celebrate success was a missed opportunity to recognize the good work that was being done to enable that success. He stressed the importance of ensuring everyone involved in the program took time to properly celebrate their successes and learn from their failures.

#3: Be relentless in pushing for growth and improvement across the program.

He was constantly aware of the challenges that come with success, and worked doggedly to ensure complacency and inertia did not infiltrate any part of the program. He was fanatical about pushing his coaches to be better, his players to develop in necessary areas, and even went as far as to push for improvements that would make coming to the games more enjoyable for the fans. He made sure that status quo was never an option for him, or anyone associated with the program.

As Coach Olson shared his learnings, I realized how easily I could apply his leadership lessons from the basketball court to my profession. What other pearls of wisdom on leadership have you captured from the sports world?

March 28, 2017


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