The NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament is upon us, prompting tens of millions of Americans to chronically check their televisions and mobile devices for how their brackets and favorite teams are doing.
If you’re in business, you can learn several lessons from March Madness. Like with business, there’s always an element of unpredictability to the NCAA tournament. But there’s one thing you can count on: teams that make it to the later stages of the tournament are teams with outstanding leadership. Here are 5 March Madness-inspired lessons for CEOs and other business leaders.
1. Talent May Get You to the Top, but Character Keeps You There
Your team won’t reach the top without talent, because key skills are required to accomplish your team’s business (or athletic) goals. But talent alone won’t keep you at the top. Repeat NCAA championships happen, but they’re generally not expected. Character also plays a role when your team barely misses being at the top. How you handle losing an account to a competitor says as much (or more) about your team as how you handle winning an account over a competitor.
2. Continual Improvement Should Be a Goal
Neither you, nor your team, nor your organization will ever “arrive” and be set. Improvement is always possible, and considering the pace of technological progress, it has to be a constant goal if you want to stay in the game. Teaching moments abound when you experience success and when you fall short. While you shouldn’t demand perfection (which is impossible anyway), a continual drive toward excellence is necessary to continued success, regardless of your prior record.
3. People Matter Most
If you put your people above “winning,” you’ll be more successful. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great makes the analogy that the great leaders “start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.” Putting “who” before “what” helps ensure you’re going in the right direction, and that you can go further than you imagined.
4. Use Individual Talents for the Sake of the Team
Legendary University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith was a leader both on and off the court. One of his greatest abilities was leading his players to not only understand their roles, but to embrace them. This, of course, begins with knowing what is expected of them – what they’re responsible for. Over time, it’s important to recognize when they do this with excellence and to let them know you appreciate the ways they contribute to the success of the team. And just as importantly, Smith recognized that it was often the “subs” and not the stars who needed recognition most.
5. “Cinderella” Teams Happen
In 1999, Gonzaga University’s men’s team came from essentially out of nowhere to make it to the Elite 8, beating sixth-seeded Florida on the way there with a last-second goal. Since that time, Gonzaga hasn’t fallen back into obscurity, but has become a fixture in the top 10 despite being affiliated with a mid-major conference. Cinderella teams, which achieve greater success than people might expect, happen in business as well as basketball. It takes hard work, humility, and strong character – three traits that matter whether or not fame follows.
One of the reasons March Madness appeals so broadly and so intensely is that it’s a fast-paced microcosm of success in general. It’s no wonder so many business leaders take lessons from this annual phenomenon, and there are countless lessons there to be learned, from what it takes to win, to the importance of embracing roles, to what turns a “Cinderella team” into a perennial contender. I have written extensively about leadership culture and invite you to check out my books as well as my speaking and training services . Let’s work together to bring your unique team to sustained excellence.