Leadership Lessons From The NBA
Yesterday playoffs commenced in the National Basketball Association. Here in the Washington DC area, where I live, the Washington Wizards made the playoffs for the first time in several years.
In an article published today in the Washington Post, Wizards beat reporter Ava Wallace writes about how leadership attributes demonstrated by one player, Russell Westbrook, helped create a positive culture and leadership aura that did not exist on the team last year. We can all take away lessons for our own leadership journeys.
Wallace writes, “The team chemistry that helped them survive a bad start was forged by long January days slogging through positive coronavirus tests… The seed of open communication was planted at practices in December. “
Team chemistry is important in every single organization. The best leaders intentionally seek to form great chemistry among their team members. It does not happen by accident. Sometimes it takes a while and can feel like a slog as we strive to create the right kind of chemistry on our team. And, in almost all instances, team chemistry does indeed come from open communication. Team members always want to know two things: what’s going on and why it is going on? They crave transparency.
Wallace writes, “Rui Hacimura, who turned 23 in February, had never seen a player raise his hand to speak in team meetings as much as Westbrook does. The point guard and Coach Scott Brooks share a deep, trusting bond that stretches back 12 years to their time in Oklahoma City, but still, Hachimura could not believe how easy it was for a player and coach to establish a dialogue.”
On all work teams, leaders must encourage team members to “raise their hands.” Teammates respect colleagues who have the courage and self-confidence to raise their hands in meetings, whether those meetings take place in person or via Zoom. In fact, you will find that frequently teammates pay more attention to comments made by their peers than they do to comments made by the leader.
The other critical element that Wallace cites here is the trust established between the coach and Westbrook. As I have written many times previously in this newsletter, trust-building is probably the most critical skill leaders can demonstrate when they wish to build a strong team culture. There is no substitute for the creation and nurturing of trust among teammates, on basketball teams and in corporate offices.
Wallace quotes second-year forward Hachimura saying, “Because he’s so vocal,… You talk about everything.… He’s straight up. So realizing you can be like that, it helps.”
Leaders talk. They explain things. They encourage team members to talk about what’s on their minds, creating a safe space. They serve as role models, just as Westbrook does for his teammates. When team members see the leader being “straight up, “they receive a message that they can behave that way as well.
Wallace continues, “While Westbrook helped force the team into speaking more frankly, Brooks also wanted the younger players to learn from the nonverbal parts of his game. Westbrook is famous for his meticulous preparation on game days, during which he is so focused that family members know not to speak to him. “ She adds that Brooks knows that Westbrook “brings that professionalism, that excellence about doing your job every day, and doesn’t make excuses.”
Nonverbal messages happen in our offices all the time. As leaders, it’s really important we are aware of the nonverbal messages we are sending to our teammates. Our teammates always pay attention to four things: what we say and what we don’t say, what we do and what we don’t do. It is critical for leaders to be aware throughout the day of the nonverbal messages we are sending. Meticulous preparation is also essential for leaders because we are role modeling for teammates every day – in the manner we prepare for meetings, deadlines, conference or Zoom calls and critical conversations. Our colleagues expect professionalism from us always and, when we err, they expect us to own our mistakes and to learn from them.
Toward the conclusion of this article, Wallace quotes Bradley Beal, the second-leading scorer in the NBA and Westbrook’s backcourt partner: “He doesn’t expect something out of anybody else that he doesn’t expect out of himself, and I respect that. For him to do that night in and night out on a consistent basis, it propelled me…So it’s very motivational in a lot of ways.”
As leaders, we must remember that everyone is looking, even when we think they are not looking. It is amazing how leaders can help construct a positive team culture when we are willing to roll up our sleeves and do the necessary work that we expect from others. Back in the “old days” at Georgetown CLE, we used to have envelope-stuffing parties on those days when we were mailing out memos to past or future conference attendees. It never occurred to me not to participate in these efforts – I wanted to show my teammates that I would never ask them to engage in “busy work” that I was not willing to do myself.
Remember – with positive, energized leadership language and behavior, we can all propel our teammates to heightened morale and committed effort. We can all take lessons from Russell Westbrook.