Looking for Giants: 3 Important Lessons Learned from Great Leaders in the Game of Basketball

Athletic coaches are considered leaders, giants even. It can be argued that there is no greater transparent demonstration of leadership than what we see between a coach and his athletes. The intimacy we observe as a coach leads and directs his team while the players listen, act and execute, provides incredible insight in to leading, coaching, mentoring, and building relationships. In the spirit of March Madness, and in our journey to learn leadership, we look to three legendary college basketball coaches for guidance and advice on life and leadership.

Believed by many to be the greatest men’s college basketball coach of all time, and simply an all-around incredible person, John Wooden has influenced people both on and off the court. Coach K has emerged as the face of college basketball and has also demonstrated his ability to lead megastars at the Olympic level. Lastly, Rick Pitino has led both college and NBA teams to victory, and faced personal adversity and tragedy. All three embody aspects of leadership that we can learn from.

1. Embrace Servant Leadership
“Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.” ~John Wooden

I first heard this quote in an interview with Tony Dungy during Leadercast and it immediately resonated. How do some incredible coaches remain humble and embrace their role with gratitude and responsibility? Leaders are charged with influencing others to reach a desired goal. How this is achieved is the art of leadership. Servant leaders embrace their position as an honor and any success earned drives them to become a better person, professionally and personally. Wooden was not affected by the fame; in fact, his incredible success, and the fact that he had only one losing season throughout his career, actually increased his desire to serve others. His simplicity defines precision and reveals that success is achieved when we focus on what matters most—others.

Leadership Challenge: Identify and define your true principles and make decisions that always steer you toward them.

Click here for more John Wooden.

2. Silence Your Doubts
“I think you’re not human if you don’t have doubts and fears.” ~ Coach K

It’s hard to imagine that a West Point graduate with an incredible record of success still has doubts and fears. We believe he is different, void of the trivialities that plague the common person. Coach K is heralded among basketball fans and he embodies the stoic, disciplined nature many leaders desire to possess. He exemplifies teaching, coaching, and leading. His ability to make five individuals, both at the college level and among NBA superstars, function together as one is astounding.

We all face challenges with insecurity. The difference is that some of us learn to silence the inner chatter that can cause a stumble or even a fall. Our confidence and courage naturally wanes during difficult times, and when that happens, our passion and goals become blurry. In order to persevere, we need to understand the fickle nature of confidence and allow our principles to be our own guide with the courage necessary, not matter what, to pursue each goal we set, regardless of the circumstances. I’ve read countless strategies on how to keep the end in mind and stay focused; one strategy that works is to study those who you wish to emulate.

Leadership Challenge: Identify two or three leaders you want to emulate and become their student. Read and study everything they’ve published and said to help develop you as a leader.

Click here for more about Coach K.

3. Failure is Not Fatal
“Failure is good. It’s fertilizer. Everything I’ve learned about coaching, I’ve learned from making mistakes.” ~Rick Pitino

Failing is what we all fear. I love this quote because Pitino ends it with the word mistakes. At 62, Rick Pitino distinguishes himself as the only college basketball coach to lead three different teams to the final four. Coaching since 1974, Pitino continues to inspire people and is clearly fueled by passion. Pitino’s storied career has endured success and defeat at both the collegiate and professional levels, which enriches his call to action—to reflect on our mistakes so we can learn and grow. In order to achieve at superior levels, we have to be willing to truly reflect on what is and what is not working to make the necessary adjustments. If you are in a leadership position and you make decisions then making mistakes is inevitable. The question is: are you willing to be vulnerable and admit mistakes in order to learn and grow as you strive to achieve?

Click here for more advice from Rick Pitino.

Leadership Challenge: Pick something of a failure that you’ve experience recently, and reflect using a journal or a mentor who is willing to listen. Learn to let the failure be the catalyst for strength and growth.

Leadership is difficult. The path is obstructed by issues, mistakes, fear, doubt, and, at times, ridicule. However, greater leaders serve others first, remain humble yet confident, and take comfort in knowing that today’s mistakes are tomorrow’s lessons learned.

We would love to hear from you. Share a story or tell us if this post resonates with you. @tjvari @josephjonessr

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