Basketball and Leadership Part 1 – What is a Leader?

What is a Leader?  What Traits / Characteristics Do Leaders Have?

Basketball and all other sports love leaders.  We look at guys like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Chris Paul, Isiah Thomas, and other great leaders and we talk about how they make the players around them better.  There are stories of their fierce competitiveness or their ability to push their teammates to the brink.  A lot of these stories are true…but leadership is someting that doesn’t just exist in the NBA.  It exists in all levels of basketball (and in life).  We want to share with you some of our thoughts on basketball and leadership and also about how you can add some leadership training into your basketball training.

There are many different ways to define leadership or to define a leader.  If you asked 100 different experts you would get 100 different answers.  You would hear some similar themes and you would hear words that repeat.  Things like: unselfishness, charismatic, adaptable, respected, passionate, goal-oriented, influencing and many words along those same lines.  The truth is – leaders and leadership can take many forms.  You have outspoken and charismatic leadership like Martin Luther King Jr. or John F. Kennedy,  strong and disciplined leadership like Jackie Robinson, demanding and competitive leadership like Michael Jordan, transformative leadership like Coach (Ken) Carter, or very historic and by-the-book leadership like Coach K.  These leaders have some stark differences, but they also have some strong similarities.

Before we dive in any farther, I’m going to tell you that my education, research, and experience tells me that while there may be some parts of leadership we are born with… I am very confident that leadership and great leaders can be developed.  You CAN learn to be a great leader.  It is not easy, but through hard work you can develop.  Just like anything it takes commitment, dedication, practice, and hard work…. and leadership is going to require a little extra, things like working for a greater good, unselfishness, and empathy.

There are a few skills or traits that you will find very common among leaders, this list is not exhaustive, but these are some key foundational requirements among leaders.  You don’t need to have all of them to be a great leader, but you need to have most of them:



A leader must be able to communicate.  This means with your teammates, with your coach, with the staff, administration, the scorekeeper, and everyone else!  But this is more than just being able to talk to someone.  It means speaking clearly and with eye contact.  It also means being a good listener and being able to cater your communication to who you are talking to.  Sometimes you need to be loud, sometimes you need to be softer.  A great communicator knows when to use each.


Putting others ahead of yourself is critical when striving for success as a team.  This might mean letting teammates score more, it may mean making the extra pass, or focusing on defense and rebounding even though you know you can score more.  It might mean coming off the bench and doing so with a good attitude.  Unselfishness can extend to more than just on-court activities…it could also mean sticking up for a teammate outside of basketball, helping a teammate study for a class or get ready for a tryout for a team in Europe or a semi-pro team.


Leaders are accountable for their actions.  If a leader messes something up, they step up and take the blame.  They also are willing to take the punishment/pain for the team, even if they themselves did everything right (this is also unselfishness).  A real leader doesn’t make excuses ever.

Honesty / Trust

Being honest is often underrated.  This parallels the traits of communication and accountability.  A good leader has to be honest.  This could mean being honest about something they said or did.  Another aspect of this is being honest with your abilities, your strengths and weaknesses.  Very closely related to honesty is trust.  You must learn to trust your teammates and your coaches, and being honest with them and trusting them…they will trust you back.  This is critical for success of a team.


Things change.  People change.  Situations change.  Great leaders are able to adapt to whatever is thrown at them.  There is a saying that I love… we don’t have the ability to control all situations, but we ALWAYS have the ability to control our reaction to the situation.  A good leader is always ready to adapt and be flexible.

Dedication / Work-ethic

This one might go without saying, but being a leader takes hard-work.  This means leading by example and leading from the front.  You can be charismatic and communicate wonderfully, but if your team doesn’t see you working hard, no one will follow you.  Teammates will follow and even imitate your dedication and work-ethic.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence for basketball players is something that most people skip over.  I think it is important.  Emotional intelligence really is just saying that you know how to understand people and you can empathise with their situation.  It also means you can cater your approach and communication to an individual instead of trying to make others adjust to you.

Faith / Belief

Every team is working toward something bigger.  In order to get their (league championship, make the playoffs, etc..) you have to believe you can do it.  You have to believe in your teammates and your coach.  Great leaders have an unshakable belief that they can accomplish it.  This belief is really faith…b/c faith is something that you know is real even though you haven’t seen it yet.


In our next post in this short series on basketball and leadership, we are going to go through some things that leaders do that relate closely to the traits listed above.  We are also going to talk about some actions that you can take starting today to become a better leader.

About Joe Lucas

Joe Lucas is the founder of The World of Hoops. DSC_8916 He has 25 years of experience playing basketball, training basketball players, and coaching basketball. The World of Hoops provides intelligent and intense basketball training to take basketball players to the next level.

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