What March Madness Teaches Us About Leadership

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships. – Michael Jordan

March Madness is upon us. It’s the time of the year in college basketball where dreams come true and when hearts are broken depending on the final score. How’s your bracket looking? Regardless of how your team performs there are key leadership lessons to be learned. Here are five worth your consideration.

Expect the unexpected.

When filling out the brackets for the tournament the early picks seem routine. It’s safe and easy to pick the number one seed to defeat a number sixteen seed in the early round. But invariably an upset or two happens; i.e. Ohio State and Dayton. How did that affect your bracket? The leadership lesson is clear. Things don’t always go according to plan or how you think it should. Just as a team prepares for the big game, so too should you as a leader prepare and play hard. But don’t fall into the trap of predictability. Be prepared for the unexpected and be flexible. Unexpected things can and will happen.

Everyone loves an underdog.

Often during March Madness an underdog emerges that captures the limelight. Basketball fans will long remember NC State’s last second dunk by Lorenzo Charles in their astounding victory over Houston in the 1983 championship game. That game ranks as the number one upset in tournament history. Many successful leaders are those who were labeled as an underdog but simply forget to read those headlines. Walt Disney was fired by the editor of a newspaper for “lacking ideas”; Steven Spielberg dropped out of High School and applied to attend film school three times but was unsuccessful because of his C average. The examples are countless. You may be an underdog today but you can be the top dog tomorrow. Never give up.

The experts are often wrong.

During March Madness it’s always amusing to see the “experts” make and defend their bracket selections and explaining away their choices when they get it wrong. The best and brightest former players and analysts make bold predictions and are often no better at their predictions than you or I.  On your leadership journey there will be critics who will try to discourage or dissuade you by telling you why it can’t be done or why it’s too difficult. When Fred Smith was at Yale he wrote a paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. His professor wrote in response, “The concept is interesting and well formed, but in order to earn better than a “C”, the idea must be feasible.” Fred Smith ignored that advice and went on to start FedEx anyway. As a leader sometimes you will have to defy the critics and ignore the experts and just do what’s in your heart. Go for it.

Fundamentals matter.

The teams that make it to March Madness do not get their by chance. They are winners and that takes skill, teamwork, dedication, and hard work. But most of all it’s about executing the fundamentals. Their work ethic on the court is a reflection of their work ethic in practice. Championship teams master the fundamentals of the game. Leaders who excel in whatever field of work they are in do it the same way. It’s about being your best, giving your best, and doing all that you can to help your team win. When leaders fail to remember the basic tenets of leadership; hard work, honesty, selflessness, etc., it makes weak an otherwise strong team. You master the fundamentals of leadership when you live by the fundamentals of leadership.

How you lose is just as important as how you win.

While 64 teams make it to the Big Dance only two make it to the final game. One team will run the tables and emerge victorious and 63 teams will lose. It’s not meant to sound harsh but rather serve as a reminder that be it a basketball game or business, there are up’s and down’s. But how you lose reflects on your leadership style just as much as how you act when you win. After losing to Mercer, Duke’s Coach K went to their locker room to congratulate the team on their victory. “You guys have a hell of a basketball team,” Krzyzewski said, “I love the game and you guys play the game really, really well and your coach coaches it well. If we had to be beaten, I’m glad we got beaten by a hell of a basketball team. So good luck to you.” Talk about a class act. Sometimes you can make a stronger impact by how well you lose than you can in victory. In victory or defeat be kind, gracious, and humble.

What do you say?


© 2014 Doug Dickerson

If you enjoy reading Doug’s leadership insights you will especially enjoy his books, Leaders Without Borders & Great Leaders Wanted. Order them both at www.dougsmanagementmoment.blogspot.com