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Shirts and Skins: Management lessons from the basketball court

by: Chuck Wielgus
Article re-print from Fast Company

We all have our passions. Mine happens to be playing pick-up basketball, and at the age of 55, I still load up my gym bag three or four days a week and slip off to the downtown YMCA to play in the noontime pick-up basketball games. It's the same crowd you'll find in most any active YMCA gym. The ages range from the early 20s to the late 50s; the players are black, white, and Hispanic; some come into the locker room wearing shirts and ties, but most are more casual. Regardless, our common denominator is a shared love for the game.

Playing pick-up basketball is more than good exercise and camaraderie. It's a microcosm of society in general and the business office in particular. I constantly find myself evaluating employees and new contacts against the same criteria that I value in good teammates on the basketball court. Are they team players or are they selfish? Do they understand their own strengths, weaknesses, and role? Can they put points on the board? Will they take on tough assignments? Do they help others out? Are they good communicators and a positive influence? Are they winners or whiners? ADVERTISEMENT

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However, there's more at play here than personnel profiling. There are a number of leadership principles that translate from the basketball court to the business office. As a lifelong pick-up basketball player and as the chief executive for a national nonprofit organization with a $22 million annual operating budget and a staff of 70, here are my top five:

See the court.

Great leaders are able to look at a problem, an issue, or an industry and see things that others don't. They see opportunities and solutions, and they are able to articulate a vision that gives purpose to the efforts of others. A true leader is not only constantly looking for the new opportunities, but they're also looking to get the ball to teammates who are best positioned to take advantage of the situation. Like a blessed point guard, an experienced leader will visualize the expanded benefits that reveal themselves like falling dominoes as one action naturally leads to another. Equally important, the good leader will keep their team out of trouble and not put the ball into the hands of the wrong person at the wrong time. Leaders, like the point guard, have court awareness and a sixth sense about how and when to utilize resources and take decisive action.

Score points and keep score.

Pick-up basketball is all about winning the game and holding the court. It's no different in business. Good leaders put pressure on themselves to consistently put "points on the board." This can be in the form of announcing accomplishments and milestones; launching new products, programs, or services; and introducing new plans. They know the score and are continually looking to create value for and interest in their brand. Like savvy ball players, good leaders are aware of the circumstances that surround and can impact their business, and they confidently adjust strategies and tactics to avoid obstacles and take advantage of market developments.

It's OK to wear short pants and canvas sneakers. Sure, the young players can run faster and jump higher, but old-school fundamentals may be more necessary today than ever. An alley-oop slam dunk can be a spectacular crowd pleaser, but a backdoor cut and lay-up is still worth the same number of points. There is a growing concern among basketball coaches and aficionados that far too many of today's younger players are deficient in their fundamental skills. The same might be said for many of today's hard-charging business school grads. Both would do well to ground themselves in the fundamentals. Bigger, faster and flashier isn't always better. Patience, preparation, and professionalism are among the most difficult, yet most important, values to embrace.

The whole is greater than the parts.

I'll take my chances with four other experienced hoopheads against a team of over-confident young studs any day of the week. Older, experienced players understand their roles and know how to accentuate strengths and hide weaknesses. They no longer rely on individual quickness and strength to beat opponents, realizing they are collectively better served by meshing their own skills with their teammates and fashioning themselves into a more cohesive operating unit. The same concept applies in the office. Employees who see the bigger picture and understand their specific roles become more valuable teammates in the process. As a chief executive, it is among my highest priorities to help all our employees visualize our larger corporate objectives, and then ensure that they understand their role in meeting specific goals.

Don't lose touch.

Your job, your skin color, and your bank account mean nothing in a pick-up basketball game. You're stripped down to T-shirts, shorts, and sneakers and your on-court status is solely dependent upon the assets you bring to your team and the game. The court is indeed a brutally -- and beautifully -- honest common ground. As one who sits in a corner office, I know how easy it can be to become disconnected. Playing pick-up ball reminds me of the constant need to stay in touch. As our economy increasingly moves from providing commodities to providing services to providing experiences, it is going to be increasingly important for leaders to be in touch with their customers and experience providers.

The next time you lace up your sneakers, take a good look around you and pick your teammates wisely. Remember, it's all about teamwork and scoring points -- just like at work.

Chuck Wielgus is the executive director of USA Swimming. He is also, along with Alexander Wolff, the co-author of The In-Your-Face Basketball Book and The Back-In-Your-Face Guide to Pick-Up Basketball.

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