It’s March

by | Mar 13, 2023

That can mean different things to each of us, including the beginning of daylight savings time, the first signs of spring’s approach, longer days and warmer temperatures, etc.  For me, March is all about the NCAA basketball national championship tournaments.  My favorite men’s college basketball team for decades has been the Gonzaga University Bulldogs.  I’ve been a fan since long before their unlikely and remarkable “Cinderella” tournament run in 1999. 

The reason this topic can have significance in discussions of organizational and leadership success is because basketball, perhaps more than any other sport, can be the perfect example of what can be accomplished if every member of a team is fully invested in achieving the absolute most that they possibly can.  Certainly basketball, like most other sports, is host to many stellar individual performers.  Sometimes that is all fans and observers notice.  Indeed, the 2020-21 Gonzaga Bulldogs roster included a freshman phenom named Jalen Suggs.

Jalen is an extraordinary athlete and was a designated “one-and-done”, meaning he would spend one year in college basketball and then enter the NBA draft. He had his standout performances and buzzer-beater shots that year – his ESPN SportsCenter moments.  He and his teammates went 35 and 1 that season, and the one loss was the ultimate last game of any team’s season – the NCAA championship game.  Up to that point, this team had won all of their previous 35 games.  It is easy to say that it was teamwork that accomplished that feat, but it comes across like a platitude unless you dig a little deeper.

Imagine being part of a team that is steamrolling through whatever challenges are put in front of you.  You might be tempted to start believing that there is nothing that can stop you.  The circumstances might seduce you into thinking you have achieved everything that you possibly can, both individually and collectively, in terms of working together.  This team, specifically the players on this team, did not fall into that trap.

There is an oft forgotten statistic in basketball called “assists”.  Sportscasters and analyst mention assists frequently in the overall profiles of players that standout.  But generally, to the normal fan, assists are sort of like opening the car door for someone.  It’s nice, but doesn’t contribute directly to the operation of the vehicle.  The most that you notice, sometimes, is that someone made a nice pass. You don’t always make the connection between that pass and the basket that the recipient made.  Once the points are scored, attention turns to the player who scored them.  But coaches know that successful execution of assists can determine the outcome of a game.

At some point during their undefeated season, the players on the 2020-21 Gonzaga Bulldogs began to analyze game films in a somewhat different fashion.  They started concentrating on improving “assists”. They critiqued how they might have passed to an open player rather than taking a lower percentage shot.  They looked at how to improve anticipation of defensive players moving into passing lanes.  They improved recognition of drawing extra defenders on drives creating the opportunity to pass to an open man.  They made the commitment to communicate more on the court to minimize errant passes.  No judgment of past performances.  They concentrated solely on improving team performance by helping individuals realize their goals to be better.  Coaches know that improvement in assist-to-turnover ratio can produce victories.  So, seeing the player initiated effort to collectively make each of them better individually, they essentially got out of the way.

There really are leadership lessons everywhere. 

BTW, the 2022-23 version of this team tips off this Friday, March 17th at 4:35PM to see how deep they can go.

Stay Courageous,