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Lessons from the Big Dance

Every year, I manage to carve out time to catch a few NCAA Tournament basketball games. The games are thrilling, and I often can’t stop watching them. This year I wondered, How can I harness the enthusiasm evident throughout tournament play and apply it to business?


To answer that question, I decided to probe for wisdom from the coaches of this year’s Final Four teams. I also looked to John Wooden, who won 10 national championships in 12 years as coach of UCLA. How do successful coaches build team enthusiasm? How do they lead? Here’s what I learned.


Take yourself in stride. If college basketball coaching is the most screwed-up, narcissistic profession there is, as some have said, then Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger is “the anti-narcissist.” “He’s competitive without losing track of what’s important,” says an Oklahoma reagent quoted by


Kruger’s practices are open to the public and the media. His office door is never closed. He creates a culture of support that helps rally his players.


“He does a good job in keeping us collected,’’ says OU star player Buddy Hield, as quoted in USA Today. “He’s never too high, but he’s always in between the lines, and never acting too angry at us. He’s always mellow.”


Identify your team leaders. North Carolina’s Roy Williams believes it’s important to “nurture, guide and encourage leadership on and off the court.” Williams, says, operates under three leadership principles: (1) Have one goal for all; (2) Emphasize that goal each day; (3) Identify your leaders and develop them.


“Some years, the best leaders are your most gifted players,” Williams says. “However, sometimes the most effective leaders may not be the best scorers or rebounders but players who set great examples by their work ethic, or by being vocal, or by carrying out less glamorous roles that coaches know are critical to a team’s success.”


Lead by example. Jay Wright of Villanova is Mr. Prim and Proper. He’s always poised, chronically suave and charismatically cool. “He encourages his players to adopt the same professional, non-trash-talking approach in their conduct,” says an article. That it works is evident in the respectful, but hardworking way Villanova players carry themselves.


But with Wright, we can also draw a lesson about managing under pressure. People watch leaders for clues on how to handle tough moments. A leader’s projecting an air of confidence while remaining objective under trial, gives the members of his team a powerful source of motivation.


Push your players. Jim Boeheim has been at the helm of Syracuse Basketball since 1976—a testament to his ability to handle year after year of competitive intensity. “He’s unflappable, at least outwardly,” says former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, quoted by ESPN. “Inside, he’s flappable—like all of us are. But outside, he doesn’t let small things affect him.”


Boeheim is highly focused on player development, but he admits this isn’t easy. “You don’t always know how far to push a player,” Boeheim says in an article on Sports Illustrated’s “But my default position is that you have to push. You have to get a player to perform. Many times players think they’re playing hard and they’re not. It’s up to you to show them what playing hard means.”


Cultivate enthusiasm. UCLA’s John Wooden began developing his Pyramid of Success in 1934. One block he chose that year to be a cornerstone is enthusiasm. “Leadership requires enthusiasm,” says Wooden in “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court.” Why is enthusiasm key to success? “With it [enthusiasm] you stimulate others to higher and higher levels of achievement,” Wooden says.


I believe the above principles are totally applicable to business. While I don’t have the chops to be a big-time basketball coach, I’m sure going to try be an effective leader in my line of work.


And you?

Mark L. Johnson, an industry marketing consultant, who writes regularly about wall and ceiling construction. He tweets at @markjohnsoncomm and connects at

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