People often ask me, “What’s the secret to being a successful basketball coach or executive?” Truth is that there is no secret, but rather a skill that separates great leaders from mediocre ones, and that’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves left. It’s what you do in those dark moments – when that voice in the back of your mind begs you to run and hide – that makes that biggest difference in leadership.
Self-doubt will eat you alive if you let it.
It’s a brutal lesson that I’ve learned many times in my career. Yet after more than three decades in coaching, I admit it never hit me harder than it did last fall. One of our players had too much to drink on Halloween night and, in a freak accident, got hit by a car driven by one of his own teammates. I ended up getting the call in the middle of the night, and by 3:30am, I was sitting by his bedside in the emergency room. His parents – who entrusted me with his care – were sitting next to me crying. His teammates were hysterical. The next day, the papers were calling for my resignation, and I somehow had to be the voice of sanity and reason while holding back my own tears.
The expectation to perform and win at the highest level, to be a role model and mentor to my players and the community can be a merciless pressure cooker that suffocates from all sides. But it was in that bleak and unforgiving moment in which I realized that a leader’s greatest challenge isn’t having to answer to his shareholders, his competition or even the media. It’s finding the strength to confront his biggest nemesis– himself.
Prevailing wisdom tells us that there is no place for internal conflict in leadership. That those of us tasked with leading teams and managing organizations should always be in good spirits or, at worst, remain stoic, that we should exude confidence and sweep away the negativity or cynicism that creeps into our operating environment. Yet human nature says differently. That voice deep inside our head, the seemingly constant stream of negative thoughts, criticism and fear is just our brain trying to do its job – eons of evolution alerting us to harm and keeping us safe from danger in the concrete jungle of the modern world.
For the longest time, I thought becoming a great coach and building a winning team meant discovering my players’ and staff’s strengths and then using them to offset their weaknesses. But the truth is if you’re going to spend your whole life running away from your inadequacies, you will never develop the willpower to execute on the skills that you have. Attempting to ignore our emotions, much like trying to minimize our weaknesses, only serves to amplify them. That’s why effective leaders don’t try to suppress their inner thoughts, just like they don’t simply ignore the flaws of those they are trying to lead. Instead, they develop emotional agility – the ability to the harness their emotions and learn to apply them to the right people, in the right situations and during the right times.
Emotional agility is as integral to success in basketball as it is in the business world and any other aspect of life. When we recruit student-athletes to Indiana, we always weigh a player’s athletic potential against his ability to recognize his emotional state and channel it in a way that will lead to a positive outcome regardless of any situation he faces. We judge him on several competencies which give us a deep insight into his character and whether or not he can help us be successful.
The first is a player’s ability to interpret his emotions, what we call self-awareness – his ability to recognize and understand whatever it is he needs to do to face his self-doubt and insecurities head on and use them as a catalyst to improve not only himself, but also the people around him. It’s not just about being competitive. It’s about accepting his role within the organization and appreciating that the positive outcomes he so desperately covets can come about as a result of not just his own accomplishments, but also from his teammate’s happiness. Without self-awareness, there is no emotional throttle control, and the likelihood of misguided behavior increases dramatically, especially when you are dealing with young adults.
The second is his ability to empathize with teammates, coaching staff members and anyone he interacts with on a day-to-day basis. When you’re dealing with someone who has been highly sought after and lauded for a valuable skill-set his entire life, that person is far more likely to be susceptible to falling into a trap of his own success. The most common symptom such individuals share is their collective inability to relate to people around them, especially people who may not be at their same level of talent or ability. Having empathy means being able to interpret and understand an issue from another person’s perspective. Particularly in an environment where cooperation is so critical, players who are unwilling to sympathize and make sacrifices for the betterment of those around them are not individuals we want on our team.
The last competency is a player’s capacity to recognize the situation. You can be the smartest, most compassionate person in the world, but if you can’t appraise what’s happening around you than those attributes are worthless. Being situationally aware means having the ability to interpret both the inter and intra-personal emotions of your team and those around you. Many times, student-athletes can become upset because they are not getting enough playing time or do not get the ball enough. That is why we want players who can understand that there is a time and place that their skill-set is best used and that they invaluable members of the team no matter what their roles are in that particular moment.
Of course, scoring highly on the above three competencies does not guarantee that someone will be able to satisfactorily apply emotional agility in every context and situation. That’s because the dirty secret of emotional agility is that it’s the organization, not the individual, who is in charge of feelings. It’s within the sole purview of coaches and managers to dictate the cultural norms and acceptable emotions of their players or employees. Therefore, unless organizational leadership is willing to provide the type of operating environment that encourages people to recognize their feelings and apply them appropriately, it is highly unlikely that even the most in-touch person will successfully utilize emotional agility.
One of the principal responsibilities I have as a head coach is creating an environment within the basketball program that is conducive to the emotional growth of my players. The challenges of being a modern day student-athlete are well known, but when coupled with the inner struggle many players face in properly managing their emotions, one can begin to understand why so many end up crumbling under the pressure. This is why our coaching staff and the athletics department as a whole works tirelessly to insure that every decision we make is not done in a vacuum and that each of our student-athletes understands exactly why we did what we did.
This past year, we chose to dismiss several players from our program because we felt as though their behavior was not emblematic of individuals responsible for the emotional and physical well-being of their teammates. But in doing so, we also realized that the remaining players on the team may not have fully recognized why we took such drastic action, or at worst, may have resented us for it.
To counter this, we chose to perform a unique exercise with the goal of making sure our players appreciated not only the impact that Indiana basketball had on people’s lives but also their role in preserving the values and ideals the program represents. Over the course of a weekend, we put some 200 note cards in a bucket, each one with the name of a former IU player, coach, alumni, faculty member or other individual who had an important connection the program. Each of our players were asked to draw a name randomly, and then write a letter to that person explaining what it meant to be a Hoosier and why they had a responsibility to their teammates, the university and all those that came before them. In the end, no one but the player that wrote the letter and its recipient ever saw its contents, but the exercise served as a powerful reminder to each of our athletes that so long as they donned the crimson and cream, they were being held accountable for their behavior and those around them.
It is also worth noting that the concept of emotional agility is very much interconnected with that of instinctive leadership. Making decisions with our gut means making judgements based on wisdom, rules and patterns we can’t articulate, but for some reason feel appropriate to that time and place. When we tell ourselves “something just doesn’t feel right”, it’s not our stomachs talking but rather the parts of our brain that have no capacity for language trying to warn us of an imminently bad decision. Making intuitive judgements based on past experiences are an accepted, but often-precarious part of organizational leadership.
When it comes to recruiting personnel for our teams, coaches and managers often rely heavily on their instincts during instances in which they must decide between candidates. Conventional wisdom says that our decision making in such situations should be based on objective criteria – facts, figures and tangible accomplishments – but how often do we find ourselves picking between two candidates whose achievements are almost identical? It’s in those moments that we must consider a person’s fit for our organization and how they mesh with our culture; more often than not such decisions heavily rely on instincts. Yet it takes years of experience to not only develop the inner comprehension necessary to make intuitive judgments, but also to trust yourself when doing so.
This past summer, I tested this theory on myself by compiling a list of every single student-athlete I’ve recruited as a head coach, and then asking myself, “Did I trust my instincts when I decided to offer them a scholarship?” As I went through the more than 100 names, I realized that every single time I had gone against my instinct, and took a chance on someone I knew I shouldn’t have, they ended up not working out in some way or another. One would think I would be best served listening to my gut moving forward, but instinctive decision-making is not always as simple as recognizing patterns and then trying to sync behavior to encourage the desired outcome.
For example, during my time at Marquette University, I decided not to offer a scholarship to an incredibly talented student-athlete after being turned off by the way he spoke to his mother during a recruiting trip. At the time I remember thinking, “he has the ability to take our program to the next level, but if he’s going to talk to his mother that way, how in the world am I ever going to get him to listen and respect me?” The student-athlete went on to accept an offer from another university, and proceeded to become a collegiate All-American and later an NBA All-Star.
In retrospect, one might argue that I had made a mistake and that I should have taken the chance, but I have no regrets about my decision. Just because the college coach who eventually accepted that student-athlete was able to make the situation work, does not mean I would have been able to do the same without compromising my values. Indeed, the most important component of both emotional agility and instinctive decision making is acting in accordance with your values and making sure your behavior is not simply a result of seeking short term gratification. While our emotions are always changing, our values are constant, stable and provide us with the anchor we so desperately need when making difficult decisions. This is why if I were faced with the same scenario today, there is no doubt I would make the same decision.
In the end, whether you’re coaching a college basketball team or running a major corporation, your most important job as a leader is ensure that those who follow you have the resources and support to properly understand and manage their own emotions. As we wrestle with our own insecurities, we must work diligently to insure that they do not infect our own organizations. We must be the rock against which others break their own fears against. As Billie Jean King once said, “pressure is a privilege”; those of us fortunate to lead must carry both our burdens, as well as those who look to us for guidance and direction.