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Friday, July 06, 2012

Positive Leadership: Maintaining a Winning Approach

Strategy, understanding the competition and strong technical talent are keys to success in any competitive sport. However, in basketball, when the momentum can shift at any moment, an intense uncertainty exists throughout the entire game. In this context, the team’s abilities to adapt to constant change and operate in unstable environments are decisive factors for winning. The same holds true for business leaders in today’s uncertain business environment.

Here are some other lessons that can be gleaned from one of the most successful sports coaches in history and a best-selling author on leadership, Mike Krzyzewski, the head coach of the Duke University men’s basketball team.

Use symbols and images to create a frame of reference

Business leaders often invest heavily in developing a vision that addresses all of the environment’s complexities. But often the concepts are wordy and by the time they traverse from the executive suite into the rest of the organisation, they can become lost, mistranslated and ineffective.

A hallmark of Krzyzewski’s leadership is his use of symbols and images to effectively communicate vision and ideas that stick. The right image can be a powerful tool for conveying complex ideas in a way that is easy for the team to understand. That understanding can then empower the team to act accordingly.

Two images that he uses are the fist and the wheel.

To create understanding of team identity, Krzyzewski uses the symbol of the five fingers coming together to form a fist. The symbol simply, but effectively, describes the unique strengths each individual brings to the game and the incredible power that results when they come together as a team.

To illustrate the structure of the organisation, he uses the image of the wheel. Traditionally, the spokes only connect to the centre (in this case the coach) of the wheel. In Krzyzewski’s wheel, the spokes also connect to each other, resulting in greater stability so that even in the absence of the centre or a missing spoke, the wheel remains intact. His organisation has a higher degree of stability, mutual awareness, and support because its members understand that their community is defined as much by the collective strengths and connectivity of its members as it is by the leader.

Provide focus and priorities

Even with a clear vision and set of stellar strategies, organisations can remain overwhelmed by the amount of work required to achieve the end goal. Without focus, members can be paralysed into inactivity or mobilised into a host of actions that generate little return.

Although the Duke team’s endgame is winning the national championship, in every practice the focus is solely on the next game. This is regardless of the opponent. Players are expected to bring their best to and treat each game as if it were the championship game. That focus helps the team hone in on and develop the requisite skills needed to win that next game. As the season progresses and number of games grows, the team builds the discipline, mentality and capacity to adapt to any situation.

Help members understand where they fit into the big picture

In a dynamic business environment, decisions often do not have time to go up and down a chain of command. Members need to be able to act in the moment in a way that is synchronous with the other parts of the organisation and in support of each other. Being successful requires that members understand where and how they fit into the big picture.

A key way that Krzyzewski creates an adaptive communal organisation is by providing clarity around players’ roles and reaffirming each individual’s importance to the team.

A few years ago, when Duke’s star player J.J. Redick was asked how it felt to be the primary scorer for the team, his response was, “It’s my job.” He understood his role not as the star, but as helping to create a winning team. Another player’s role may be to pass the ball. The team also has several walk-on players whose role is to train.

Krzyzewski helps each player, whether a star shooter or a walk-on, understand his role in the context of the overall team. By doing so, he fosters an even greater sense of community because all the members see their individual value to the team, as well as the value of their teammates. This also played out at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when Krzyzewski was able lead the United States to a gold medal by moulding a group of high-scoring NBA superstars into a cohesive team in which players understood their roles.

For leaders operating in today’s complex global environment, adopting these lessons can give their organisations the necessary competitive edge.