Taking the jump

Kansas' Thomas Robinson (0) fights for a rebound with Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas (1)

It’s hard not to be swept up in the enthusiasm and excitement of the NCAA basketball tournament finals.  In the men’s final, Kansas Thomas Davis and Kentucky Anthony Robinson may be taking the lions share of the attention, but this is basketball, a team sport.

March madness,  aptly named doesn’t merely test the NCAA players’ individual strengths and abilities, it also tests the players’ resilience in the face of intense competition.  The tournament teams demonstrate performance derived from a highly orchestrated and elaborate combination of planning, coordination and engagement, all of which  makes the games so watchable.

Recruiting the talent, the vision and leadership of the coach, the  mechanics of the practice regiment, codes of conduct, the branding of both the tournament and the individual teams and the general environment converge to attract the network contracts and endorsements that all create the frenzy atmosphere of the tournament.

The value of Together, or Team

March Madness may be about college basketball but it’s also a lesson about  performance which if extended into other domains could change the reverence for the power of the individual,  the dominating paradigm in American culture.  Let me explain.

Vision, inspiration is often associated with individuals, especially those who take on leadership roles.  In any sport or any physically demanding activity, an individual earns recognition based on their level of play,  raw ability and talent. In American culture our heroes are largely sports figures because they illustrate the best of what’s possible. Independent of their ethnicity, their socioeconomic status or native environment, their natural talents catapult them to success.  This is the idea behind the phrase picking ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  Sure, ability plays a role, but there’s far more at work and if we don’t recognize it and help others understand it, Americans will fail to get the success that follows when we take the jump  whether we make or miss the shot.

Reflection and broadened horizons

One crucial piece of vision includes the coach, an individual who  receives significant credit for the player’s realized success.  The strength of a coach, who may or may not have been a former player or performer, recognizes that the vision of victory must be shared.  Sure, the one player who may see they have a shot needs to consider whether someone else may have a better chance of success.  The collective, or how one player’s strengths can play off  another, requires a collective vision of victory, that relies on more than a single player’s ability. Successful coaches promote the best of the abilities in all their players, not just the stars. In basketball, the unparalleled success of Phil Jackson extends from what he gives. © AP Photo/Kathy WillensAs one of his players explained, he learned how to give themselves to something they never thought of before. The Washington Post in 2009 suggested Jackson’s success extended from his willingness to broaden his player’s horizons to try things  and challenges beyond basketball.

Unlike school, the NBA is not the place for unproven or untested stars, so Jackson started with a great talent pool.  But few players who ever played under Jackson’s leadership will deny how much greater he made them.  He takes individual stars, and teaches them to be great leaders and confident thinkers and not just executors.

Performance is an art form 

Performance is an art form. No results are certain, no matter how well a team practices, rehearses and plans. Basketball players recognize no matter how great their individual contribution,  the game depends on coordinating their actions to seize the opportunities as they present on the court.  They have to look beyond themselves, learn to help their team mates move and position themselves in response to the events as they unfold.The only way to gain that trust is by working with each other on and off the court. After all, success is determined by the number of games the team wins and loses which includes not only the combined tally of every player’s winning shots, but their assists and passes and blocks.

In school, children are taught to work in teams too, a transfer of the successful team approach. Evaluation however remains stuck on measuring how well an individual performs and largely ignores the impact of the collective effort.  We judge schools and teachers by individual performance scores on standardized tests and miss the value of assists, passes and knowledge sharing.  Missing the parallel to “the game”, or the tournament, limits the validity of students’ ability to apply and execute what they have learned in more natural environments.

OK what about in your organization, what parallels to “the game” do you use to measure the interdependency of the combined abilities that  you’ve hired?  How often does the hiring plan take on a balanced approach? Who is the coach that goes out of their way to help individuals work and play with each other better?

Performance in the mix not the individual

American organizations need to learn and replicate more of  what Phil Jackson does, maximize potential in everyone. Scott Williams blog suggests “He creates a culture of focused chemistry.  The number one priority in coaching and leading is to create a strong culture by developing leadership, empowerment, communication, authentic care for others, relationships, trust, and motivation.”

Much to the benefit of every American, it’s not just successful basketball coaches who recognize that helping individuals persevere, and self-correct during times of challenge and crisis is a critical skill set.  HBR blog on leadership recounts how the US army, includes resiliency as part of its overall leadership training. The curriculum’s success depends on getting people to think about their thinking, or what psychologists call meta-cognition. Beginning in 2009, the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program draws on many of the same principles that Jackson uses to differentiate both his approach and the teams he has coached.  For example CSF teaches individuals

“To identify and leverage their own strengths and the strengths of others to overcome challenges. People are on a team for a reason, so figure out why and let them use their potential to accomplish the mission.”

Self-reliance, deeply embedded in the American character shaped the philosophy of the school system and the character of many of our entrepreneurial heroes.  The inventors that idled alone, the industrialists who knew how to make prudent investments and the more recent code jocks who have helped create the future.  They all find the area that maximized their particular abilities and strengths, right?  They took the jump shot and it paid off handsomely for all of them.  They didn’t make every shot, but their own persistence and resilience helped them win as they battled against the tide. They fundamentally believed they could make the shot they did and just as importantly they kept trying, they didn’t give up they didn’t let the system define them, or limit their talents.

I’ll close with some perspectives from Sir Ken Robinson who advocates for an end to the linear thinking and persistence of knowledge frames that don’t enable different strokes for different folks. If you haven’t heard this talk, I highly recommend it.  The hallmarks of standardization and consistency for efficiency characteristic of the American school system that measured personal merit quite narrowly, contributed to pyramid style organizations that excluded creativity.  We need to regain the ability to value an array of different types of performance, to measure performance based on the cumulative interactions of multiple strengths and abilities. I’m not advocating for more variance on the indicators or standards we have, but more variety in what we recognize as performance that counts.

We have made college too big a prize, in spite of the most famous college dropouts business success. Like the army, other organizations need to help people develop the strengths and confidence at every stage to keep working at learning and to keep practicing, the very qualities that make high performance and resiliency possible.  We need more leaders, like Phil Jackson who are willing to prove the clear value of every member of their teams contribution but works with each to develop their skills and abilities.

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2 thoughts on “Taking the jump

  1. Rachel, One of my favorite stories about Phil Jackson was soon after he took over at the Chicago Bulls he took Michael Jordan to the side and instructed him to pass the ball every time he got it. This forced the rest of the team to figure out what they were doing on the court, as the prior MO was to pass to Michael and watch.

    • Dave
      this is a great story! Thanks for sharing it. I lovethe natural reorientaton that both the team and MJ had to make, the result helped make them the effective repeat final victors! Practice is what leads to mastery, no matter what level of your natural talent.

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