Sports, clichés and team leadership

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Dr. Bill asked us recently to think and write about what it means to be a team. The biggest cliché of all is that of a sports team – one with a coach, a leader or two, role players and a greater purpose. Being a sports nerd myself, I thought it would be fun to tackle leadership in a team setting by looking at it through the lens of athletics.

I grew up in the mid-sized town of Portland, OR as a mediocre soccer and basketball player. Of all the Northwest’s big cities (Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver, etc.) Portland sports the smallest media market. It’s not a town athletes flock to make their millions, nor one that famous actors rush to for their next big movie role. In fact, it’s more likely an athlete or actor at the end of their career comes to Oregon to settle down with their family.

That being said, sports teams back home have to emphasize that four letter word in their strategy: Team. It’s not easy, sometimes it’s not pretty either, but it’s essential to their success.

Trail Blazer fans - The Oregonian

In today’s realm of sports and media, there’s so much emphasis on the individual. We recently went through a saga that employed NBA superstar Dwight Howard as its main character. Major news networks covered the man for months, tracking his ‘ups and downs’ and ‘where he will go next.’ In the past six months, Howard managed to not only insult the fans of Orlando where he previously played, but also aided in the firing of his head coach and general manager. In Orlando, it wasn’t about the team. Rather, it was about one man, one very ego-driven man. In a smaller market like Orlando, putting all their eggs in one basket proved costly to the organization.

Which brings us back to Portland. The city, as quirky as it may be, does salute the team aspect of basketball.

This salute comes through a couple key traits. First, and probably most important, is effort. Without effort, even with the greatest of great, there is no team and there is no success. Back home, the Blazers organization has sold hundreds of thousands of tickets simply because the team puts it all on the floor on a nightly basis. When they don’t, no one shows up. It’s as simple as that.

Second is identification of roles. Who shoots the last shot? What’s the spacing on the floor? When do I defer? All of these questions are important ones to ask on a basketball court. Life in general asks the same questions: Who is taking care of this task? What decisions should I address the leader on? Who can I ask for help? A great team finds that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, both on the court and in life.

Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson -

Finally, a team has a great leader and coach. It’s no wonder the Chicago Bulls of old were one of the best teams of all time – the on-court general was Michael Jordan, and the off-court general was coach Phil Jackson. Without either, a team simply can’t succeed. Larry Brown, one of the greatest coaches of all time, struggled in the middle of his career because he didn’t have a great team leader. Likewise, Kobe Bryant lost his identity when the team briefly parted ways with coach Jackson. These two aspects can’t be more stressed in a team setting.

We can learn a lot from sports. Parents love them because they teach us life lessons about winning, losing, hard word, teamwork and passion. We can also learn that being selfish never helps anything. What sometimes gets overlooked is how a sports team inherently embodies certain aspects of a team, again including hard work, roles and the coach/leadership dynamic. All these things ultimately make a successful team.

One Comment on “Sports, clichés and team leadership”

  1. Glad to see I wasn’t the only one who thought of a Michael Jordan squad when asked to write about good teams! I definitely agree with a lot of what you wrote and you’re definitely right when you say that Portland basketball is centered around the team instead of one individual player (like D-12 in Orlando). I like to think that’s why you guys have such a loyal fan base and why it’s always tough to play in Rip City (except maybe not last year).

    It’s funny how sports are one of the most helpful ways to teach and illustrate good teamwork, despite the fact that many often disregard them as just being a game.

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