Basketball and Leadership Part 2 – What Leaders Do

In part two of our series on leadership (with a focus on basketball leadership specifically) we are going to go through some things that it is common to see from great leaders… either on their while being or on their way to becoming a great leader.  Click here you haven’t read our part one… Basketball and Leadership – What is a Leader?

Learn and make mistakes

Learning and making mistakes go hand in hand.  Some of our best lessons come from making mistakes.  Great leaders are usually people that are addicted to learning.  They seek out guidance from anyone they can.  They read books.  They even reach out to people you might not expect.  One good example of this is from Kobe Bryant.  He reaches out to successful people in other fields to get advice and to hear how they achieve and lead their companies or industries.  Some of the people he reached out to might surprise you… Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, and Anna Wintour were among them.  He also has watched hours of game film of Hakeem Olajuwan and Michael Jordan to learn and replicate some of their most successful moves.  This all shows a huge desire to learn.

Moving on to mistakes….you might at first thing that great leaders don’t make mistakes… and they might not make many mistakes anymore once they are considered a great leader, but undoubtedly they make some.  But the truth is, a big part of the reason someone develops into a great leader is because they made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned from.  John Calipari talks about this in his book “Players First”…where he says he encourages all his players to “fail fast”.  He wants them to make a lot of mistakes in practice and early in the season so they can learn from them.  In Coach K’s early years with Duke he had two consecutive losing seasons… He then went on to make the NCAA tournament in every season he coached in for the next 32 years.  Great leaders fail, admit their failure, and learn from it.


Help others and put other first

There is a misconception that once you are the leader, people do things do things for you.  People think that leadership is just a position of power and people should bend over for the leader.  And sure, some leaders do operate this way.  But truly great leaders… the type of leader that their teammates would stand between them and a bullet… they put others first.  Great leaders are servant leaders.  They serve those around them.  They make sacrifices.  A great basketball example of this was Tim Duncan in the 2016 NBA playoffs.  In a critical game, Duncan played less than 10 minutes.  His coach decided to keep him on the bench and Duncan knew that as much as it might have hurt his pride, it was the right thing to do.  Another basketball example of servant leadership comes from legendary coach, Dean Smith.  Dean Smith would sit in the back of the plane in coach class and let his seniors have the first class seats in the front.  One last example comes from one of my favorite leaders, Greg Popovich. Patty Mills is an Indigenous Australian and obviously was playing for San Antonio under Pop.  What he didn’t know is that Pop took the time to learn about the very special day for Indigenous Australians and he asked the team to help him honor Patty and his culture (article here).  Pop took the time to do something special for one of his players and to make them feel special.

By helping others and putting other people first, great leaders make those around them better.  They allow and drive those around them to achieve more than they might have been able to own their own.


Accept tough feedback and work to fix it … honest about themselves

“You shot takes too long to get off”

“Your handle isn’t tight enough”

“You are out of shape”

“Your left hand is too weak”

When you hear feedback like this, let’s face it… it sucks.  No one likes to hear that they aren’t good.  It is natural to think that you are good enough or to compare to someone else and say “well I’m better than Mike”.  What great leaders do is accept this feedback and start to try to fix it.  Better yet, the best leaders already know their weaknesses and they are working like crazy to improve them!  When Kawhi Leonard came into the NBA everyone said that he couldn’t shoot… I think he has taken care of that… in the ’15-’16 he shot 44% from 3, 51% from the field, and 87% from the free throw line.  Kawhi took the feedback and acted on it.


Lead from the front

Leading from the front is similar to leading by example.  Leading from the front means being the guy that pulls his teammates together for offseason workouts.  Leading from the front means if coach yells at you, you say “yes sir” instead of feeling sorry for yourself.  It means winning sprints.  It means keeping your teammates in line off the court.  Leading isn’t easy.  Leading from the front is even harder, it takes courage.  No one said being a leader is easy.  If you are going to lead you are going to have to take the blame for some things that aren’t your fault and giving away the credit when you are the one who might deserve it.  This is leading from the front.


Adapt to change

Things change and by nature most people are opposed to change.  But generally, those that resist change usually get left behind.  Basketball has changed a lot over the years.  If a team tried to play basketball the same way that it was played 15 years ago, they might be in some trouble.  If you went back 50 years, they would be screwed… any further than that and you are barely even talking about the same game!  The 3-point line was a big change in the NBA, in the first year of the 3 point line there were just 2.8 attempts per game and it was called a “gimmick”, but now teams are shooting around 25 3-pointers per game.  The Warriors embraced the 3-pointer whole heartedly (along with playing some pretty tough D) and it has done wonders for them.  Steph Curry has become the MVP of the league by bombing away 3s.  When change comes, be ready for it.


Make tough decisions (the easy and the hard)

Decision making is an underrated ability.  We aren’t talking about what to have for dinner.  We are talking about a really difficult decision like breaking off a friendship with someone because it no longer makes sense or it is bad for your life.  Or a decision like basketball coach Ken Carter made when he chained the gym shut until his players met academic standards.  The easy choice for Coach Carter would have been for him to keep the gym open and worry about basketball, ignoring what the kids did off the court.  Coach Carter made the hard choice.  He led from the front and made the tough decision.

Thinking about tough decisions always reminds me of a short writing called “The Easy and The Hard”.  I first saw it come from legendary coach Don Meyer, but I’m not sure who originally wrote it.  Take a look at it here:


Are themselves…their beliefs, their passion

A lot of parents, aunts & uncles, teachers, coaches, and others will tell you “be yourself”.  It’s something you hear a lot over the years.  But when you look at great leaders, they often are unapologetically themselves.  Magic Johnson was a charismatic showman with a quick smile.  Steve Jobs wore his patented black turtleneck, new balance shoes, and jeans… and liked to meditate.  Martin Luther King Jr. was a powerful speaker with strong religious ties.  These leaders and many many others embraced their own personalities.  They didn’t try to be something they weren’t.  They made public their beliefs and fought for them passionately.  When a leader embraces the “be yourself” mantra it shows they are an authentic person.  This builds a genuine bond between them and their team / business / followers / etc.



Michael Jordan was a great leader (albeit a very tough leader).  He led with an iron fist (Ask Steve Kerr’s jaw) and he was very demanding… but he didn’t start stacking up championships until he started trusting his teammates.  Some of the biggest plays for those Bulls teams were 3 point shots from Jon Paxson and Steve Kerr… coming off of passes from Michael Jordan.  Michael built a trust with those players and having that trust paid off.  Great leaders realize they can’t do it all themselves.  They build up trusting relationships and let people operate in their own unique way.  They also aren’t threatened by someone that might be better than them.  Instead, they mentor the up-and-comer and try to make sure that they become the best!


That’s it for this second part of the basketball leadership series.  Hopefully this gives you some examples of how exactly leaders act in certain circumstances and can help you start thinking about what YOU can do.  In part 3 we are going to give you some specific things you can do to start becoming 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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