Leadership Lessons From March Madness

Tonight, the University of Michigan will play the University of Louisville for the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Over the course of the tournament, 68 teams will have played 65 games over the course of 19 games to arrive at the national champion. Here are the leadership lessons I’ve learned from watching this year’s March Madness:

  1. Adversity shows what a team is really made of. Some teams cruised through their regular-season conference schedule, only to collapse against stiffer competition in the tournament. Others rose to the challenges they faced over the last two and a half weeks. The prime example of this is Louisville, which was in a tight Elite Eight game against Duke when one of their players broke his leg in a gruesome freak accident that was watched by millions on national TV. Instead of letting this setback lead to discouragement and defeat, the Cardinals rallied for their injured teammate and won the game going away.
  2. Don’t underestimate the importance of senior leadership. While there have been exceptions over the years (see 2012 national champion Kentucky), in general most successful teams in the tournament feature upperclassmen with the poise, maturity and experience to stay cool in high-pressure situations. These characteristics are earned on the court, not learned on a whiteboard.
  3. Team beats talent. Again, see Kentucky. John Calipari again recruited a stellar collection of talent, but the knock on this year’s Wildcats was that they never learned to play as a team. As a result, they didn’t even make the NCAA tournament field and were relegated to the NIT — where they lost in the first round to Robert Morris, a true team with nine upperclassmen on its roster.
  4. Rehearse critical situations. Numerous times in this year’s tournament, I saw teams lose the game because of poor end-of-game decisions and clock management. Challenging situations need to be practiced during the regular season so everyone knows how to execute when the game is on the line.
  5. Coaching matters. The teams in this year’s Final Four featured coaches with a combined 50 years of college head-coaching experience. While there are some very good young coaches in the game (Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart, and Andy Enfield to name just a few), the great ones have excelled consistently over time at all aspects of the game including recruiting, teaching, preparation and game management.
  6. Enjoy the journey. Florida Gulf Coast University became the latest Cinderella to crash the Tournament ball. Until they got knocked out by Florida in the Sweet 16, they played with the infectious enthusiasm of a team with nothing to lose.
  7. Never assume victory. There is no such thing as a “lock” or a sure winner. The Baylor women’s team, this year’s surest thing thanks to 6’8″ center Brittney Griner, was handed a stunning, one-point heartbreaking loss by Louisville in the Sweet 16. And of course, the men’s tournament saw several high seeds upended by the lower-seeded opponent. Anything can happen; there is no guarantee of success.
  8. Tried and true beats trendy. Syracuse advanced to the Final Four with an old-school, 2-3 zone that the Orange played to perfection, flummoxing opposing players and coaches. Sometimes the best strategy is the simple plan, masterfully executed.
  9. The hard work is done out of the spotlight. The best players don’t become great in the bright lights. They become great in the weight room, on the track, in the corner of the gym late on a weekend night, putting in hours of hard work with no one watching.
  10. Sometimes success is just about being in the right place at the right time. Contrary to what we’d like to believe, we don’t always control our destiny. An injury here, a fortuitous bounce there, an unexpected call by a referee, and suddenly you’re on top of the world — or on the outside looking in.
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