A sports performance Cinderella story for the ages…
Whenever we hear about a wonderful underdog or ‘Cinderella’ story our collective hearts and imagination are quickly captured. We embrace the awe inspiring success of the individual or the team involved, yet we also find ourselves trying to understand the reason for the success. ‘How did this wonderful thing happen?’ we ask ourselves. This past year, on one of the biggest sports stages in the world, David slew Goliath once again. In a thrilling overtime game that will no doubt quickly become a ‘March Madness Classic,’ Jim Larranaga’s scrappy underdogs – George Mason – defeated the mighty Uconn Huskies coached by the legendary Jim Calhoun, to advance to the Final Four. And as the nation embraced their new Cinderella, we once again found ourselves searching for the story within the story – What brought about this compelling victory? Without doubt, immediate credit must be given to the George Mason players whose outstanding offensive execution and gritty defense was consistent, intense and team-centric. Yet, the real story within the story is revealed when we begin to understand the reasons behind the great execution, selfless team play and intensity – solid teaching and leadership.
Leadership has always been a popular topic of research and discussion, but today’s sports, corporate and social climate has underscored a need for effective leadership that has never been greater. As I travel around the country I am often asked “Of all the leadership traits, which do you think are the greatest?” Whenever I hear this question, I find myself making a very strong case for the following two leadership/teaching attributes – Integrity, and the Ability to Make Others Better.
A father once took his two children to the local fair. The man had a 12 year old, and a 5 year old. The sign on the ticket booth read “Adults $10, children 5 and over $5, and children 4 and under – free.” The man’s 5 year old looked young for his age, and could so easily have passed for a 4 year old infant. The children looked on in silence as the father reached for his wallet. “1 adult and 2 children,” he said as he passed a $20 bill across the counter. The women in the booth looked at him somewhat surprised, “you could have got the little one in for free and just asked for 1 adult and 1 child, and I would never have known that your youngest was over 4.” “They would have known” the man replied.
Many definitions of the word ‘integrity’ exist, but a very succinct definition is ‘an individual who does what they said they would do.’ Integrity begins with the coaching staff. Without an integrity mentor or ‘model,’ athletes sometimes have few guidelines to follow. The thing I find most interesting about integrity within the coaching staff is that sometimes we all look to avoid the ‘big’ things that would potentially damage our integrity – misappropriation of athletic funds, sexual misconduct with a player, etc. However, as damaging as these incidents are to any program, they are for the most part fairly uncommon. Most of the damage to the integrity of a coach or a program is usually caused by the smaller, much more subtle decisions. As the maxim goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The decision to allow a ‘hard and fast rule’ to slide a little or to treat our better players a little differently may not seem like a big deal at the time. In fact, in less than a day or two our actions may be a distant memory in our own minds. But like the children at the fair in the opening story, our players may remember those subtle actions for the rest of their lives. Athletes work harder and play harder for the coaches and programs they truly respect. That respect is evident in the joy and enthusiasm that the George Mason players have for the game, their coach, and their teammates. You get a sense they truly enjoy playing for coach Jim Larranaga.
A coach who brings great integrity to a program will be able to recruit and develop athletes that also exhibit this key trait. An athlete with personal integrity will be a champion for your team rules and your team culture. This trait is critical. Integrity is an attribute that is possible to lose, and once lost, this attribute is very difficult to get back. For coaches making leadership choices (i.e., selecting team captains etc), choose carefully in this area. No matter how talented the athlete, if they do not have personal integrity then they can lead your program down paths that can poison a team and an entire season. Athletes with great personal integrity are a joy to coach. They help turn good teams into great teams and are the backbone of great team culture.
Making Others Better:
How do we define the ability to ‘make others better?’ I believe this leadership trait transcends mere knowledge and teaching ability. Many coaches have great knowledge, and many of these coaches may also be great teachers who produce highly skilled athletes, but this does not necessarily make these coaches great leaders. In a similar manner, there are many athletes whose raw athletic ability, skill and court savvy may influence a teammate to perform better, but these abilities do not necessarily make these highly skilled athletes great leaders. ‘Making others better’ has as much to do with affecting how an athlete feels about himself/ herself off-court as it does influencing an athlete’s on-court performance.
Let me illustrate this point by briefly discussing a famous anecdote involving two giant historical figures in world leadership. In the mid-19th Century, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli were bitter political rivals who had tremendous influence over European and many aspects of World policy. They were known as well connected, highly intelligent and accomplished statesmen. An influential socialite during this era who often hosted elaborate parties for the rich and famous, decided to throw a party and invite both Gladstone and Disraeli with the intention of spending a few minutes to interview and learn more about each of them. After the party, one of her guests was highly curious about her meetings with her two honored guests. “Tell me” he asked, “What was Gladstone like?” “When I had finished speaking with him,” the host responded, “I was convinced he was the smartest man in Europe .” “So tell me,” the guest continued, “What was Disraeli like?” “When I had finished speaking with him,” the host answered, “I was convinced I was the smartest woman in Europe .” Great leaders find a way of bringing out the best in individuals both on and off the court, understanding that self-esteem and confidence has as much to do with on-court performance as a well executed run-and-jump defense or half-court set offense. Coach Jim Larranaga can obviously teach the game (as evidenced by the almost flawless execution of his game plan), but the story within this story is the way he has effectively developed a team of confident young men. Even though George Mason would advance no further in the tournament than the semi-finals, the lessons that coach Jim Larranaga and the 2006 NCAA Tournament imprinted on the player’s self-esteem and confidence will no doubt impact them for the rest of their lives.
Great leadership qualities within the coaching staff will help identify, recruit, and develop great leadership qualities among the players. Great leadership among the players will help the coaches to establish an all-important leadership culture that will permeate every aspect of the program and establish great player accountability that is as much player driven as it is coach driven. These are the programs that embody integrity and a culture that makes others better. These are the programs that compete to their potential, graduate their players, build a legacy, and every so often provide us with a Cinderella story for the ages.