Basketball was my first love. I fell in love with the game at five years old and I’m so grateful that even today, four decades later, it’s still a major passion and pillar of my life.
One thing I know for certain – the principles of high performance, productivity, and achievement on the court are identical to the principles necessary to achieve in every other area of life.
Here are 5 leadership lessons I learned through basketball and what the best of the best do…
#1) The best embrace discomfort
As human beings, it is wired in our DNA to crave comfort. To subconsciously make things as easy as possible. But that’s not how you grow. You grow through discomfort. You grow through challenge. You grow through adversity.
If you want to maximize your potential as a leader, you must condition yourself to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You need to learn how to intentionally leave your comfort zone with purpose.
How well we perform when ‘the lights are on’ is dictated by our tolerance for discomfort when ‘no one is watching’ (a term my friend Drew Hanlen coined as The Unseen Hours).
Damian Lillard once said, “If you want to perform well in front of millions, you have to get in a million reps in front of no one.”
Elite players don’t stop when they become uncomfortable… that’s too easy. Instead, they lean in.
The same is true in business. It’s only after economic dips, a few no’s, some slow sales months, and a couple of misfires and mistakes that the best ideas surface… and that progress is made.
#2) The best hold themselves to a high standard of excellence
Can you imagine Stephen Curry saying, “I don’t have time to practice this week” or “I’m already pretty good. I don’t need to practice anymore?” Of course not!
Elite performers are elite because of their commitment to practice. It’s not something they stop when they’ve reached a peak.
So why do so many people in the business world feel this mindset is acceptable? Why do people think that climbing the corporate ladder and reaching a certain amount of success gives them a free pass to stop working on themselves? To stop practicing the very things that got them there.
When it comes to personal excellence, there is no finish line. You never arrive. It’s a lifelong journey. Elite leaders know they will always be a work in progress and always under construction.
As a leader, if you’re going to expect it of your team, you must expect it of yourself. Not doing so is the quickest way to undermine your credibility and erode your team’s buy-in and believe-in.
#3) The best do the little things… every… single… day.
In early 2008, Hall-of-Fame Coach K made a surprise visit to DC to attend one of our practices at Montrose Christian (to recruit one of our players).
Now, to put it in perspective… Coach K was someone I had idolized my entire coaching career. So having a chance to meet him – and talk to him for 10 minutes – was pivotal moment in my life.
Coach K and I chatted for 10 minutes before practice started, and while I don’t remember a single word either of us said (I was in total Fan Boy mode!), I will never… ever… forget how he made me feel. He made me feel like I was the most important person in that gym. He gave me his full attention, had positive eye contact and body language, and showed a genuine interest in my life and work. He made me feel valued, seen, and heard.
Later that evening, I wrote him a handwritten “thank you” note to tell him how much I appreciated his time and how incredible it was to meet him.
A few weeks later, I received a handwritten letter back from Coach K, in essence saying how much he enjoyed meeting me!
I was blown away.
This ‘little’ gesture, which probably took him 60 seconds to write, has had a profound impact on my life. This ‘little’ letter is the reason why I go out of my way to tell people how much I appreciate them. This ‘little’ letter is why I do my very best to return every email, every text, and every voicemail as promptly as possible.
Because ‘little’ gestures – when done consistently and with authenticity – make a big difference.
#4) The best bounce back
Mistakes, failures, and losing are a part of the game. Even the best players on the planet are going to turn the ball over, miss shots, and commit fouls.
They are inevitable and can’t be avoided.
What a player does on the very next possession – after he dribbles off his foot or misses a wide open layup – tells me everything I need to know about his character and fortitude.
Same is true in business.
Mistakes, failures, and losses will happen… but they aren’t what’s most important – how you respond to them is.
What do you do when you lose a sale? Or mess up a report?
Do you choose to blame, complain, and make excuses? Do you choose to pout, sulk, and whine?
Or do you own you mistake and learn from it? Do you choose to show some grit and resilience and move the ‘Next Play’?.
How do you bounce back?
#5) The best never get bored with the basics
Back in 2007, I had the opportunity to meet Kobe Bryant for the first time and observe one of his early morning workouts.
And for the first 45 minutes, I was shocked at what I saw.
I watched the best player on the planet do the most basic footwork and offensive moves. Kobe was doing stuff that I had routinely taught to middle-school-aged players. Granted, he did everything at a super high-intensity level, and everything he was doing was with surgical precision. But the actual stuff he did was incredibly basic.
At the end of the workout, which was about 2 hours long, I quietly left the gym. But later that day, my curiosity got the best of me. I just had to know. So, during one of the camp sessions, I approached him with the question: “Kobe, you are the best player in the world. Why are you doing such basic drills?” He smiled and said: “Why do you think I am the best player in the world? Because I never get bored with the basics.”
Kobe taught me a pivotal lesson that morning. He taught me that just because something is basic, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy.
But we live in an instantly downloadable world that encourages us to skip steps and circumvent the process. We are taught to chase what’s hot, flashy, and sexy and ignore what’s basic.
But the basics work. They always have and they always will. This holds true in basketball, and it holds true in business.
The best leaders in the world never get bored with the basics!