BLG Leadership Insights Features

David Stern’s Fight

Leaders and organizations often go hand in hand. Sometimes it is hard to separate the man from the brand for obvious reasons (Henry Ford, William Chrysler) but there are other times when leaders are synonymous with the company they lead. One perfect example of this is the NBA’s David Stern. Stern did not invent the idea of organizing teams playing basketball for money, but in many ways he has perfected it. When he took over as NBA Commissioner in 1984 the league was just starting to grow again (thanks to two guys named Magic and Larry) after a long period of neglect and falling attendance. Since then the NBA has become a multi-billion dollar worldwide phenomenon/industry (the average team is worth $369 million). Of course it didn’t hurt that a Michael Jordan also arrived on the scene in 1984, but that’s a story for another blog.

With the help of an amazing supporting cast, Stern revolutionized the business of sports. His use of aggressive marketing and expansion, made basketball more than just the sport you watched between the NFL and MLB season. Without David Stern there would be no modern NBA.

Sounds great right? Who wouldn’t love a story about a outstanding leader saving an authentically American sport from the ash-heap of history? But there is a downside. There is a negative to be found and in late 2011 it’s on display for everyone to see.

The current NBA lockout, which threatens to take with it the entire 2010-2011 NBA season, is not only a function of the players demanding a larger (or at least not a smaller) share of the billions of dollars the NBA earns but also a function of those same players wanting to separate the NBA from David Stern. It is really not so much a classic battle of player versus owner but more of a battle for the soul of the league itself. Most players and even a few owners have grown tired of being dictated to by Stern. No one can deny that Stern’s brilliance has made a whole lot of people rich and famous and perhaps it’s true that Stern is just trying to save the NBA from financial ruin down the road. If the economy stays in the gutter and the league can’t groom superstars to replace Lebron and Kobe, there is no guarantee that the NBA will continue to be the money making behemoth it is today.  But it seems to me that we are getting to a point where the animosity between the players and David Stern has overtaken the realities of the situation. The leader and institution have become far too entwined.

I doubt seriously that David Stern will walk away from this fight. In reality the odds are good that he will win in the end, it’s what he does. But going forward it’s clear that for the sake of the NBA as a whole David Stern, the leader, will either have to choose to separate himself from the institution or the institution will do it for him, if it survives.

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.

BLG Leadership Insights

Lebron, Leonidas, and The New York Knicks

The notion of loyalty is central to the construct of the workplace. How much “loyalty” we exhibit towards our organizations and our superiors is often interpreted as an implicit measure of our character. Great leaders and dutiful subordinates are supposed to be with their men until the very end. Our society reveres the images of Captain Edward Smith going down with the Titanic or Leonidas fighting with his unit at Thermopylae in the face of imminent defeat. It is important to note that our societal narrative also praises those who cut bait and move on to bigger and better things.

The NBA season will draw to a close over the next two weeks. The free agency period will follow approximately two weeks later. The free agent class is headlined by Lebron James who many sports pundits consider to be the league’s best player and heir apparent to Michael Jordan. Lebron James, Akron native, drafted by his hometown Cleveland Cavilers in 2003 is faced with a choice between legacy and loyalty. Does he stay with his hometown Cavs, who have made every effort to bring in supporting players to help him win a championship, but now lack the salary cap flexibility to improve, or does he bolt to greener pastures of New York?

Winning a title in New York, along with the increased global media attention of playing round ball in the Big Apple, would net Lebron countless additional millions and allow him to achieve his stated desire to be a “global icon”. Sticking with the Cavaliers would afford Lebron the opportunity to finish what he started in his hometown and he would forever be included in the select company of athletes who played their entire careers for one team.

Leaders need to acknowledge that there is polarity present in each team member’s mind. One side is pushing the individual to pursue career advancement and individual prestige above the needs of the team. The other side stresses collaboration and group achievement above self interest. Hopefully, by acknowledging these considerations, we can create better working environments that increase productivity and more importantly reduce employee stress.

Picture Credit: Ryan Fung