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March Madness is Upon Us: What the Basketball Court Taught Me About Empowerment

By Annamarie Lang

What do basketball coaches have in common with business leaders? Lots!

Prior to joining the field of training and development, I spent 10 years as a college basketball coach and athletic director. As college basketball’s March Madness goes into full swing, I can’t help but think about my experience as a basketball coach and its close ties to the role of a leader in any organization. Many books have been written on how athletic coaching techniques could be leveraged by business leaders since coaches are leaders—just in a different office (gym) and I guess with a little less sweat (or not?!). However, I’ve found that coaches on and off the court are truly tested on the idea of empowerment or providing support without removing responsibility.

Doing vs. Coaching

March MadnessAs a coach, I could never ‘do’ what needed to get done. I could tell my basketball players what to do, give specific tips, and scream across the court but even if I really wanted to, I never actually shot that free throw, made the pass, or played defense myself. How often does a business leader coach, only to step in and take over the task? Effective leaders can coach then let go—they support their teams but don’t remove the responsibility from others. This can be very challenging for even the most experienced leaders because most companies put the best ‘doers’ into leadership positions. Once these successful ‘doers’ (the technical expert, best salesperson, or top performer—you know who I mean!) are leaders, we ask them to stop ‘doing’ or ‘do’ less and just lead without giving them the necessary skills to coach, empower, and delegate effectively. Then we wonder why they struggle and fail as managers!

Stepping in vs. Supporting

I can remember being on the sidelines talking to the team captain or player who handled the offense trying to make sure she understood what play I wanted run and why we needed to isolate or exploit a weakness in the defense. I always hoped she would be able to see and understand and tell me what should happen. Time was always short: I had a few seconds to make sure that athlete could execute the plan. However, as you can imagine, the face that peered back at me was sometimes unsure, confused, and not very confident. There were so many times when I wish I could’ve put on a jersey, stepped in, and executed the play.

Leaders in organizations frequently find themselves in this situation when they’re out of time, putting out fires, or faced with inexperienced team members; many leaders often just step in because it feels easier to do the job themselves (“It’ll take me 10 minutes to do it and with less grief!”) and quite frankly, because they can and no one calls out that ‘technical foul.’ A basketball coach can never, ever cross that line. Business leaders are called to support and not step in, and this speaks to the importance of how they develop and coach team members along the way—not when you’re in the last quarter or the last two minutes, but in daily practice.

Proactive vs. Reactive Coaching

Since I could never ‘do’ during the game myself, I needed to be very proactive in my coaching approach during practice so that they’d be ready on game day, when the stakes were much higher. Good practice set my team up for success, kept the players focused, increased both my and their confidence about their performance for that big game, and yes, kept my frustration to a minimum. Are your leaders proactive or reactive coaches? Do they empower and set their team up for success before a big project, or do they react and jump in when performance slips, deadlines are missed, and there’s a problem to fix? Do your leaders provide that support without removing responsibility or are they perpetual ‘doers’ because they can?

So what are keys to doing this well?

  • Allow your team to take ownership—this builds confidence and commitment. But it also means letting go and letting others shine.
  • Resist that temptation to take over. It’s not easy but think of yourself as a sports coach telling yourself you can’t do it yourself!
  • Supply the resources people need to do their jobs; this includes providing them not just the budget, but also the right skills, network of other thought leaders, and time.
  • Work to remove barriers as they take on the task or project. This could mean offering to speak to a skeptical stakeholder or resolving conflict among team members.
  • Don’t overcommit. Be realistic about the support you can offer, stick to it, and check in on progress regularly.

As a coach, I learned over time the value of providing support without removing responsibility. Empowering others wasn’t easy as a basketball coach—and it won’t be for leaders in organizations either—but when done well, there is the possibility of great things beyond March Madness!

Want to see how two of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time stack up with other leaders? In March, we crowd sourced a field of 64 leaders for our March Madness Leadership Bracket. Each week our followers voted on head-to-head leadership matchups to determine who is the greatest leader in history. Click here to see the results and let us know if there are any additional leaders we should include in next year’s tournament.

Annamarie Lang was a coach for two women’s college basketball national championships and is a senior consultant in DDI’s Leadership Solutions Group.

Posted: 19 Mar, 2014,
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