Tips for Leading an NBA Team

The Los Angeles Lakers selected Lonzo Ball as the second player picked overall in the NBA Draft on June 22, 2017. Ball was touted as a redeemer of a Lakers franchise that had fallen from the glory of its past. That same day, the Lakers announced a trade to acquire the draft rights to Kyle Kuzma. One of the players jettisoned from the team was D’Angelo Russell, now the centerpiece player of the Brooklyn Nets.

The move was not entirely unexpected by Russell. He and Ball played the same position, and it had become clear that Ball would be given the ball the moment he shook Adam Silver’s hand. What Russell could not have expected was the draft-day commentary by Magic Johnson. At the press conference introducing Ball, Johnson said of Russell, “He has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better, and also that players want to play with.”

That devaluating comment has led to a great irony. After having his leadership and likeability questioned, if not disparaged, by a Lakers legend and leader of five championship teams, D’Angelo Russell has truly become what Magic Johnson opined he wasn’t, by leading the once lowly Brooklyn Nets to the playoffs. He is also highly regarded by his teammates, his organization and his community. There is a karmic significance to this given that Magic Johnson has suddenly and surprisingly resigned as team president, and the Los Angeles Lakers will be watching the playoffs this year, instead of participating in them.

A key point of that irony is that in the summer of 2018, Russell reached out to the one player Johnson has positioned as the basketball messiah, who will lead the Lakers back to the promised land of banners, parades and rings — LeBron James. Seeking tips about leadership, Russell sought trophy-earned counsel from King James. LeBron told him, “You have to be prepared mentally to go out and dominate every game, and then your teammates will follow that.” The advice has been well applied.

Subsequent to his trade and Johnson’s comments, Russell displayed something that is a hallmark feature of leaders. In the era of social media, he could have easily publicly retaliated against Johnson and the Lakers, for the very public slight he received as a parting gift. Instead, Russell accepted his fate, welcomed his opportunity and moved on by taking the higher road to a more positive reaction. What he displayed by doing so is character. During a time when so many players are so preoccupied with their social media persona, a Pulp Fiction quote from Winston Wolfe underscores Russell’s post-trade conduct: “Because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.”

I have been a leadership designer for more than twenty years. A paramount truth about becoming a leader is that leadership development is character development. The growth, progress and achievement of the individual determine the growth, progress and achievement of the leader the individual can become.

Leadership development can take several weeks, months or even years but there are techniques that can be quickly learned and immediately applied. Here are some tips that D’Angelo Russelland every NBA player can use to improve their leadership ability.

Leadership Tip 1: Own Your Expectations

The phrase ‘lead by example’ is as often misunderstood, as it is essential. Beyond vein-popping training, mind-altering hours of drills and a sweat-soaked performance during the game, to lead by example means to never demand or require of anyone that which you are not willing and committed to doing yourself. Whatever expectations you have of your teammates, coaches and franchise, first address and resolve it within yourself. Accept responsibility for a continued duty to do this, and engage a continuous conduct to help those around you do the same. Owning your expectations means exactly this: first become what you expect others to be.

Three ways to start:

1. As a leader, hold the moral and ethical compass for your teammates.Where they go will be influenced by where your conduct directs them. Learn, know, invest in, uphold and enforce the guiding principles and standards of the franchise. These are the coordinates that map out the culture and identity of the organization.

To think of it another way, your disposition to the principles and standards of the franchise directly affects the social health of the team. Indifference to or flouting of them becomes a virus of misconduct that rapidly spreads throughout the locker room. Immunize your team with your behavior. Be what protects them from being infected by conduct detrimental to the team.

2. Being a leader is not a self-absorbed title that only considers how others play a supporting role to the leader’s stardom. Effective leadership comprehends that one has never beaten five, and that the drama of a winning performance depends on the entirety of the cast.

Seek to maximize the talents and contributions of everyone on the team. The unselfish support of those you share the floor with multiplies the effort of everyone. The team goal is the greater pursuit. If you think otherwise, find an individual sport to play.

Spend time helping each player expand their strengths and eliminate their weaknesses. Do this to earn their trust of your direction, judgment and confidence to achieve, especially in the most critical moments.

3. Cohesive invincibility is the primary focus of leadership. The strongest bonds create the most unyielding determination. The formation and fostering of the bonds between your teammates is your obligation.

As the principal mediator of disagreements and conflicts, initiate and participate in activities designed for team unity. Dissuade and disavow the public rebuke and ridicule of everyone on the team, by anyone on the team. Forge and safeguard the integrity of connections your teammates have to each other to build the highest level of fellowship.

Leadership Tip 2: Value Not Volume

Volume is not only measured by decibel levels of loudness, but also by frequency of occurrence and magnitude of amount. Constructive leadership is not about being the loudest voice, or the voice heard most often. It is about having a voice that others find value in listening to. The mvp (most vocal player) isn’t always the MVP (most valuable player). Add value to how you communicate.

Preface your intent to speak by asking yourself one key question: Is what I’m about to say going to help or hurt my team? Answering that question is not only about what you say, but how you say it and to whom you say it to.

Three ways to start:

1. Less than 20% of what you communicate to others is what you actually say to them. More than 80% is conveyed nonverbally — tone, facial expression, body posture, hand gestures, eye contact. Become more aware by imagining the younger version of the player you are speaking to. This will temper the delivery so that it is more productive than problematic.

2. Civility is the lubrication of society. Those who fail to learn this are destined to produce friction. Friction can wear down and destroy the parts and gears of any machine. Your team is your machine.

To protect it from friction, check the lubrication of your consideration when communicating with others. Is your manner of speaking yelling, hostile and demeaning or is it measured, empathetic and inspiring? Is it laced with obscenities and insults or is it guided by respect and encouragement?

Leadership is about reaching higher and rising to the next level. You cannot elevate if you denigrate. Also, people are more apt to value your leadership, when they feel you value them. Appreciation is often rewarded by dedication.

3. Just as all players have a shot pocket, every player has a “talk pocket”, a preferred manner that enables their most comfortable and effective reception for advice, instructions, corrections and critiques.

Players may share similar experiences and backgrounds, but they all have their own frames of reference and capabilities for interaction. By anticipating this mentality diversity, you are more responsive to it. If you want your teammates to score on being receptive to you, learn their pocket for processing what you say.

Leadership Tip 3: Take As Much As You Give

Often times, those in leadership positions acquire an authoritarian mindset. This way of thinking tends to be averse to accountability, chronically judgmental, needlessly confrontational and relentlessly overbearing. Nothing about this mindset, and the conduct it produces, will enable anyone to have the necessary ability for self-examination that the greatest leaders possess.

Submit yourself to the same scrutiny, assessment, feedback and critique you are in rank to give to others. Seek it out. The leader who is best listened to is the leader who learns to listen better.

Three ways to start:

1. Rather than exonerate yourself for bad conduct or absolve yourself of the negative impact your statements and behavior, apologize without reluctance or in exchange for acknowledgement or favorable concession.

2. Request feedback sessions with your teammates and coaches, during which you do the least amount of talking. Offer your comments as questions with an earnest curiosity and interest in hearing honest and unrestricted input.

3. Work independently with every teammate and find what each needs from you to play better with you, and to become a better player for the team. Take notes to signal your commitment, and incorporate what you learn into your approach to the game.

Interviews with players, coaches, general managers and team presidents often prompt comments about leadership. Sports analysts, commentators and journalist likewise touch on the topic. Unfortunately, too often ‘leader’ is used as a cliche term that labels a desirable character component, rather than discussed with any meaningful conveyance about what it really is. It’s like being able to see a color, but not being able to describe it.

Being a team leader does not equate with being the leading scorer or the “face of the franchise”. Some of the best leaders spend more time watching the game from the sidelines, than playing on the court. What does equate with being a leader is a fervent and genuine desire to help everyone better their best.

Teams will continue to demand this character component of their players, and players will remain eager to meet that demand. Every off-season provides an opportunity to acquire it. Every regular season provides the games to apply it.

D’Angelo, you are well on your way.