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Columbia Business Monthly

What Youth Basketball Teaches us about Leadership

Apr 06, 2018 03:15PM ● By Makayla Gay

Dr. Robert E. Ployhart

    Every winter, many of my evenings and weekends are spent watching my kids play youth-league basketball. Anyone who thinks leadership is easy should try coaching elementary and junior high basketball. My hat goes off to anyone who has the commitment—and the patience—to voluntarily coach youth sports.

I myself have never coached sports, but I have frequently assisted, and I have observed just about every one of my kids’ games and practices for nearly a decade. I love to watch them play, but as a management researcher I am also fascinated with the team dynamics on the court. The experience of youth basketball closely mirrors the challenges facing managers and leaders of all types of firms. You have the coach (the leadership) who is trying to develop each player’s individual skills, but also create a vision, build a team, and get the individuals to work together. You have players (the employees) who vary widely in their skills, motivation, and understanding of the game. And you have parents (the stakeholders) who want to win, but ultimately want to make sure their kid plays enough.

I was reminded of these parallels while watching a game at the start of the season. My kids play in a league that covers a broad geographical area. Some kids have known each other for years, while other kids are new to the team or the league. On this particular team, I’d say about half of the kids know each other well (the other half don’t seem to know anyone on the team). There is thus a division that exists in the team, between the kids who know each other and those who don’t. This division is not very obvious when the kids are practicing or the game is going well. The kids bond together and show pretty good teamwork. However, when the going gets tough, this division creates a fracture in the team that causes problems. The simple fact is, the kids who know each other pass the ball to each other and rely on each other. They kids they know less well become less visible, even though they are physically there on the same court.

The result is just what you might think—the defense quickly realizes that the same set of kids are getting the ball. The defense doubles-up on those kids. The cycle then becomes vicious, as the players who know each other get frustrated by the tough defense and yet rely even more on each other—who are of course now being swarmed by the defense.

This problem—relying too much on the people we know—is a classic managerial challenge. During times of stress or pressure, we rely on our habits and the familiar. In organizational settings, we tend to rely on the network of colleagues that we trust and have experienced a shared history. Time pressure constrains one’s ability to form new relationships, and time and shared experience are critical to establishing trust. Therefore, when stressed, we fall back onto the coworkers we know and trust—regardless of whether those coworkers are the best people for the job.

Of course, none of this is visible to the player or the employee. Each person is behaving in a perfectly rational way that she or he thinks is most likely to be successful. Unfortunately, familiarity blinds their perspective and they often cannot see that the very solution to their problem is the person they know the least.

Changing this habit is not simple. Every good coach seeks to establish teamwork, and teamwork is developed and reinforced during practice. A coach can even tell the kids to look to the open players. But the reality is, when you are in that moment of having the ball and all eyes on you, the only thing you can do is act instinctively and try to get the ball to the people you trust.

Thus, the solution requires conscious effort sustained over time to change habits. To play as a team, each member must know and trust every other person. The same is true in work. As a leader, to what extent have you purposefully changed the way your team works together? To what extent have you systematically created experiences that restructure the familiar patterns of social networks? To what extent have you personally sought to reach out to people you do not frequently rely on? If you are not pushing yourself to foster new relationships, then how do you know you are working with the best people for the task at hand?