Win or Lose a Team Experience Teaches Valuable Life Lessons in Leadership


By Steve Leslie

Whether winning or losing, being part of a great team can transform all who journey through a season, project or career together.

I am not a big basketball fan. However, this season, I couldn’t help but watch as the Duke men’s basketball team played their way to the Elite 8, of the NCAA tournament. Their final few games this season, despite a devastating lose, were a lesson in focus, a common objective, and execution.

Love them or hate them – the Duke program and the men’s basketball team will go down as one of the best in history. Led by head coach Mike Krzyzewski and freshmen Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, their success as a team can teach us lessons beyond the basketball court.

Being a part of a great team is a transformational experience. Think of a time that you are on a team that seemed to “click.” What was it like? What did you accomplish? How did it make you feel?

Reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work is a workshop we conduct with clients. This is a powerful exercise that tends to draw out common themes that connect everyone in their agreement of what makes a cohesive team. Surprisingly, many of those elements that our clients point out were used by the Duke basketball team this season.

Strong Leaders
A stable team who consistently performs well will nearly always have a great leader that is engaging, helpful with an innate ability to coach individuals and take them to a higher level.
Take Duke’s head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, or Coach K. He hasn’t won more basketballs games than any other coach in NCAA history because he gets the top recruits or has the best support staff. Coach K has won that many games because he knows how to motivate every one of his players.

And he doesn’t just spend his time focusing on his top performers – he also focuses on and cultivates the skills of the “B” players. Because a team isn’t made up of just one superstar. It also needs a support staff to succeed. Coach K hones on the strengths of every member of his team. He communicates what he wants from them and then helps them achieve amazing things.

A Collective Vision
Having a strong vision or purpose is what sets a great team apart from the others. On a cohesive unit, every member understands the goal and is actively engaged in achieving it. Through active communication between the team leaders and their teammates, the team can withstand difficult times because that end goal serves as a beacon of inspiration.

Collective vision is nothing more than a long-term goal that everyone sets together. All the starters and the players on the Duke’s bench were well aware of what the end goal was, and everyone served to hold each other accountable. Having this well-crafted vision helped to keep the team moving forward in a positive and unified direction.

Resilience runs deep and wide across the members because the “cause” is greater than the desires of the individuals. Everyone holds everyone else highly accountable with directness, transparency, and clarity that can only come from a high trust and high purpose environment.

We can apply this to cohesive teams in the workplace as well. A team at work that builds a collective vision is inspired and excited to achieve that goal. This vision becomes greater than everyone combined, and it becomes the source of inspiration in the toughest of times.
Know Your Role, Be Willing To Take On More, With Passion
A strong leader can clearly convey what everyone’s role is and their expectations for them. For a team to do their job effectively, every member needs to know what their role is, and stay in their “lane”, to achieve that ultimate goal.

There should be no ambiguity; simply a clear focus and an unrelenting passion for continuing to contribute to the success of the team. That is leverage, that is the power of doing what you do well and doing it better than anyone else.

However, it’s not enough not just to perform your role exceptionally. A valuable team member takes it a step further. A great teammate means being flexible in every sense of the word, maybe leading at times and also being prepared to follow, or take on a supportive role. Sometimes being on the bench, or in a substitute role, is what is best for the team

Or, it could be a more dramatic change like stepping up when freshman Zion Willamson hurt himself near the end of the regular season. It all depends on what the team needs. The Duke team embraced change, and that is why they were able to dominate on the court to the final 8.

The Long Term
A strong leader should always be thinking ahead. Coach K isn’t afraid to make unpopular choices like benching a top-performer who is having an off-game, in favor of younger talent who will benefit the team in the long-term. His ability to think about the potential, rather than just the present, is why he can make those hard decisions and always choose to do what is best for the team, in the long term. His body of work and leadership, speaks for itself and will have a lasting impact on this year’s players, regardless of their future path as leaders.

Although Duke was ultimately unsuccessful in its bid for its sixth national championship, it was a transformational experience for all involved. You can always draw inspiration and learning, regardless of what your team is or the level of success they ultimately achieve. The learning you take with you, is what really matters in the long run.

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