“Nothing But Net” Leadership

I found a story written about Gregg Popovich around midseason 2012. Late in the third quarter, the Spurs are 16 points down to the 2011 world champion Dallas Mavericks. When Popovich substituted his reserves, everyone assumed he was resting Duncan, Ginobli, Parker, et al, for a tough matchup the next night. When the reserves went on a 17-2 run and put the Spurs back into the game late in the fourth, it seemed plausible that ‘Pop’ would return his first unit to the floor. But he didn’t … and the Spurs lost when a buzzer-beater shot by Danny Green missed.

“Fast-break” forward to the 2014 Spurs who won their fifth NBA championship decisively against the two-time champs, Miami Heat. Much is written about the Spurs system and the fact that they are successful without any major free-agent signings or lottery draft picks since 1997 (Duncan). Their sustained success is player development that embraces fitting strategies and tactics to the strengths of the players.

It is a popular empowerment device for most teams and organizations to espouse teamwork … in other words, all contributions are welcome.  Was it with that in mind two years ago when Popovich stayed true to his philosophy at the risk of losing a game? What conclusion in that moment did the reserves make? My take: “coach trusts and values our contributions.” Another message sent: the purpose of the reserves under coach ‘Pop’ is not just to give the first unit a blow.

In business, leaders inspire, not command, engagement.  Like coaches in sports, executives’ most important skill is to communicate, communicate, communicate.  Popovich, in an interview response to a reporter’s question about how to get players to take ownership, said: “I think that communication thing really helps them. It engenders a feeling that they can actually be in charge. I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to what one individual ( the coach ) wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. Do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else you will me to do here? Figure it out’.   And I get up and walk away because there’s nothing else I can do for them.  I can give them some bull____ and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them.”

In a nutshell, champions generally succeed with inspired performances and the added motivation is the same thing in business. While the San Antonio Spurs are successful as a result of their big three on the court I think the big three elements for winning in business are (1) a compelling vision that provides the “why” of hard work, (2 ) the chemistry of belonging to an outcome unachievable even by more talented super stars and (3 ) the pride of contribution or ownership.

When all three are made evident by the leader, the resulting bond conquers all challenges.

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