BLG Leadership Insights Features Managerial Competence

When Stars Align: Thibodeau’s Bulls

Motivating some star employees to peak performance can often seem a fait accompli – akin to pressing the Staples EASY button. No matter the situation they always seem to come up roses. Many leaders are smug enough to believe that this is directly correlated with their leadership, and in a great number of cases it might be. The best leaders, however, understand that peak performance is what stars produce, and it’s not always a function of their leadership. The real question they should be grappling with is does my star elevate the entire team?

In sports, this is a foundational principle. All great coaches understand that getting peak performances from their stars is just the beginning, because the team’s success is the culmination of interlocking individual successes. They also understand that for the team to achieve it’s peak, the star must invest themselves in making the team better. For both the star and the coach it’s a delicate balancing act requiring them to be simultaneously of, and above, the team.

Imagine a leader who inherits an underachieving staff of primarily twenty-somethings, from three continents, 73% of whom have less than a year of tenure with the company. How do you raise that team to the top of their industry? Chicago Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau knows how. He took such a motley crew; tied the NBA record for most wins by a first-year coach (62 wins out of 82 games); positioned the team for a championship run; and was recently named NBA Coach of the Year.

What gives?

It happened primarily because the coach and his star player are in total alignment. When you listen to star point guard Derrick Rose, a third-year player who, incidentally, was recently voted the NBA’s MVP it comes into clear focus. Like a coach he’s quick to deflect individual credit; he highlights his mistakes rather than his achievements; and he’s equally satisfied scoring or setting up others to score. In short, his vision for success is his leader’s vision for success.

The 22-year old Rose, understands that the team is better when he selflessly uses his ability to put his teammates in positions where they can be successful. Both coach and star realize that to be a championship contender, the team has to be greater than the sum of its parts. This makes Rose a pretty rare star indeed – in the mold of MVP-caliber athletes like Tom Brady, Magic Johnson and Derrick Jeter.

How do you get there?

First, coach and player lead by example. Thibodeau is the team’s hardest worker, followed closely by Rose. Second, the sacrifices they make for the good of the team are readily apparent and command loyalty and respect. Third, Thibodeau coaches every individual on the team, especially his star, extremely hard. Thus, rather than merely raising the ceiling for his star, he raises the floor for everyone else.

As a result Rose can trust that his teammates, who have accepted and responded to his leadership, are prepared to make meaningful contributions when called upon. In other words, they’re all in it together. This eliminates the probability that the star only positions himself above the team as former Bulls star, Michael Jordan, did when he famously referred to his teammates as “my supporting cast.”

When leaders and star performers are “all in” for the big win, it encourages everyone else on the team to sublimate themselves to achieve collective success. For the Chicago Bulls, it means that everyone is not only on the same page, they are on the same word of the same page. Both coach and star have locked arms and infused everyone else with their will to win. How many leaders can say that?

Picture Credit: Charles Van L.

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The Myth of Failure Tolerance: Should Proactive Leaders Risk Failure in Tough Times?

We talked about making sacrifices and suffering recently–but what about failure? Depending on whom you talk to failure is either something that you should avoid or embrace.

Michael Jordan, in the video below (full disclosure: Nike Ad), says that failure helped him achieve success. In other words, he would not have accomplished anything if he, presumably, let the idea of failure cripple his skill. It’s an inspirational thought.

Failure is an uncomfortable notion. In our culture we have created a sense that effort should be taken into account before evaluating the magnitude of the failure. There is a sense that the more you take on, the more you challenge yourself, the more you experiment, the more you risk, the more you’ll be supported if you fail to achieve your goal.

In entrepreneurial workplaces, we often hear that value is placed on risk taking, that taking things to the cutting edge will be rewarded, even if success is not achieved.  While this may be an interesting notion, it does seem to me that there is less here than meets the eye.  It is one thing to talk about failure in times when resources are abundant.  It is quite another to talk about risk taking when resources are scarce.  Put in slightly academic terms, the more we approach a zero-sum game, the more we become nervous about risk, and less tolerant of failure.  When we approach a non-zero-sum game, that is when resources are abundant, we’re less nervous about risk and more tolerant of failure.

There is a certain irony to this because as resources become scarcer, leaders may push for retrenchment and risk aversion, taking risks becomes one way of moving ahead.  As had been said often lately, in today’s market, those that risk may in fact wind up on top when the economy again sparkles. But who exactly is willing to take risks when resources are scarce? Who will take risks when the downside is at hand? In truth, in our culture, we celebrate risk-taking but quietly are intolerant of failure and when things really get rough we’re intolerant of risk taking and failure.

The challenge for leaders is not whether they’ll risk and encourage others to risk in good times, but whether they’ll risk and encourage others to risk—and subsequently stand behind the failure—when times are bad. It’s one thing to risk when you are already playing for the NBA–it’s quite another to risk when your playing with a semi-pro team in northern Florida barely making a living and hoping to get another contract. Sure, if you don’t try to hit it out of the park you may never make it to the major leagues but if you go for the long ball and miss you may be left with no food on the table. So, it’s not that simple.

If there is ever a time for leaders to push innovation, to push entrepreneurship, to do it rigorously, cautiously, but with enthusiasm, it is when things seem the toughest. Proactive leaders who are entrepreneurial are now more necessary than ever before. Theoretically, if all is right with the world they and their organizations are the ones who will be rewarded when the economy reemerges. But, which one of them is willing to go for the long ball when they realize how close they are too stumbling into the minor leagues?