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What Athletics Can Teach About the Characteristics of Great Leaders

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Through my 44 years of coaching basketball (at the high school and college levels), I came to believe that the lessons learned in athletics can be valuable for leaders in any organization.

Among the many values athletics can teach about leadership, three stand out — words versus example, the ability to listen and development of a strong failure quotient (or FQ). 

There’s a saying that evokes the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi:  “Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.”  

These words may be the most important lesson a coach can learn about leadership. Certainly what the coach says to his team is important. But who he is, the values he stands for and the daily example he sets far outweigh his words. 

A coach will never sell his team on hard work if he is not prepared for practice every day, consistently studying film and meticulously scouting opponents. He may address the importance of hard work, but if he’s not demonstrating that value, his words will fall on deaf ears. 

The example set by the leader of an athletic team or in any business organization sets will always be pre-eminent. 

Related: Hoping to Strike Off-Court Gold, Carmelo Anthony Launches a VC Firm

Athletics is a great venue to learn how to listen. Both coaches and players must develop the ability to listen. Critical information must be absorbed by players during time-outs, particularly at the end of a game.

University of St. Francis team I coached once had a championship game that tied with 2 seconds to go. If one player did not listen attentively during the time-out, and therefore didn’t execute his responsibility on the play diagrammed, the team would have lost. The players did listen and scored, sending the game into overtime, only to lose in double overtime. But I could not have been more proud of the team. They listened and they executed.

In another championship game, the players for the Illinois’ Providence High School team had the ball with 15 seconds left in a tie and were going to get the last shot. At the time-out, I gave the team some instructions. The players told me they could better execute the pass from the point position. I listened and agreed to the pass from the point instead of from the wing. They executed this move and won the championship. 

In both of these cases, the gyms were packed with standing-room only crowds. Each situation was charged with emotion and listening was critical. 

Leaders in business organizations must develop the ability to listen if their teams are to execute.

Listening can be taken to another level. Listening is respect. When I am actively listening to you, I am giving you the highest form of respect. Great leaders are great listeners.

Related: 4 Select Leadership Lessons from the Spurs

One of the greatest lessons of sport may be that a player’s failure quotient or FQ is more important than the IQ. How often does an athlete fail and still have the resiliency to get back up?   

A quality hitter in baseball fails 7 out of 10 at bats. A good three-point shooter in basketball fails 6 out of 10 shot attempts. Athletes have to develop short memories when it comes to failure. They cannot dwell on it. They can’t brood over it. They simply have to get back up and perform.

I always felt the most important practices in a season for a coach were the first ones after a loss. The coach has put a tremendous amount of time preparing for the game – watch film work, readying for practices, developing a game plan — only to lose. Naturally, the coach is down, but he knows if the team is to perform better, he must arrive at practice after a loss prepared and passionate.

Related:  What Helps Entrepreneurs Truck Forward After Massive Loss?

Pat Riley, former LA Lakers coach and current president of the Miami Heat, addressed the importance of the failure quotient after the Heat’s loss at the finals in June, saying, “Losing is just as much a part of it as winning is. And when you’re a team you deal with it.” He continued that it was a time of “just looking around the room now and finding out who’s going to stand up” about going home and reflecting, “What are you going to do to come back and make the team better.” 

Just like the coaches and athletes, business leaders also fail. After all, Thomas Edison reportedly failed to find the electric lightbulb during 10,000 experiments.    

Leaders must develop strong failure quotients with the resiliency to get back up from failure.

Setting an example, listening and a strong FQ are essential qualities leaders can learn from athletics.

Related: Turning Crisis Into Opportunity: 5 Ways to Deal With Hardship


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