March Madness: 10 Leadership Lessons from the Court

By  Felice Brezina  Senior Program Manager projekt202

By Felice Brezina
Senior Program Manager

As NCAA March Madness descends upon us, I thought it would be entertaining to look back on a college ballgame billed as the “craziest in history” and extract a few lessons on leadership.

I fully appreciate a talented display of resiliency and commitment by a few determined leaders, as this 2017 game illustrates.

A summary of second-half highlights are below, but it is more fun to watch for yourself.

Game Highlights

  • On Nov. 25, 2017, No. 25 Alabama (5-0) was playing No. 14 Minnesota (6-0) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • With 14:06 remaining in the second half and Minnesota leading by 14 points, 57-43, there is a double technical foul on Nate Mason (Senior, Minnesota) and Collin Sexton (Freshman, Alabama). Mason is ejected with a second technical foul for mouthing off to the Alabama bench.
  • Sexton scores 4 points from free throws, following the technical fouls by Minnesota, and brings the Minnesota lead down to 10 points. Riley Norris (Alabama) scores a 3-point, bringing the lead to seven.
  • Less than a minute of playing time later, with emotions running high, an on-court scuffle between Alabama’s Dazon Ingram and Minnesota’s Dupree McBrayer in front of Alabama’s bench leads to the entire Alabama bench coming onto the court, which is an automatic ejection from the game.
  • Alabama is left with only the five players that were originally on the court.
  • With 11:37 left in the half, Dazon Ingram gets his fifth personal foul and is disqualified from the game, bringing Alabama to four players.
  • With 10:41 remaining, John Petty injures his ankle, bringing Alabama to three players for the remainder of the game.
  • Led by Sexton, the remaining Alabama players close the gap to lose by only 5 points.

10 Lessons Learned

1. Never give up.

Alabama’s coach, Avery Johnson, was quoted by the Associated Press after the game as having said, “There was no quit in our team.” Anyone watching the game could see that and the performance of those three young men won the hearts of thousands in the audience.

Teams that make a conscious decision to not give up in the face of adversity become a beacon and a role model for other teams in the organization. They attract well-deserved recognition, which in turn incents further performance. In extraordinary circumstances, it can even lead to public acknowledgement and benefit the company. Focusing on the opportunity for greatness can sometimes help lift a morose team out of the ditch and get them over the hurdle to a path of recovery. Celebrate small victories, too. Even if the final goal is not met, at least the team can look back and say that they never gave up.

2. You can’t afford to lose your cool.

I can only imagine how the Alabama bench players felt watching their peers take on a monumental challenge, all because of their lack of restraint. Watching the fatigue on Sexton’s face and knowing he was out there without any backup probably made them all feel a bit like chumps.

While I generally don’t advocate for a guilt trip as a motivational approach, it does serve its purpose on occasion. Remind poor performers that they are part of a team. It is easy to get caught up in individual challenges and emotions. Helping those members to look outside themselves and assess how their actions -- or lack thereof – will impact their peers could be just what the doctor ordered. Additionally, reminding them of the team may also recall that they have a pool of people available to assist before they lose their cool.

3. All it takes is one good leader.

Sexton stepped up in a major way in the game and I am sure that example provided tons of motivation to his peers.

The same holds true for software teams. Even having only one person act as a leader can have a profound, unconscious effect on others. If your leader consistently proposes solutions versus focusing on the challenges, the nay-sayers on the team start to stand out in a bad way and the smart ones start to adjust their behavior without being prompted. If your leader monitors the health of his or her peers, and steps in to help before being asked, that can cascade so that others start to take notice of the people around them. It is infectious. As a Scrum Master, you need to also watch for those behaviors and recognize them when they occur.

4. Sometimes, even senior, experienced team members can still make mistakes. Sometimes, your youngest, least experienced team members can shine the brightest.

Mason got ejected from the court for mouthing off and it cost him the rest of the game. As a college senior on a ranked national team, he is familiar with intense moments in sport, but on that day he didn’t let his experience guide him. In comparison, Sexton is three years his junior, is less experienced, and was involved in the same incident and received a technical foul. The difference? Sexton composed himself and then went on to lead his teammates in an epic comeback that, even though it wasn’t a win, will further his legacy.

Don’t rely on your most senior, experienced resources alone. Also, don’t discount your junior team members who may bring a fresh perspective and new skills to bear. Allow each team member to bring strengths to the table and respect each other’s contributions, regardless of each member’s tenure.

5. Don’t let your environment undermine you.

Announcers at the game repeatedly commented on the effect of the stadium and fans. They said it was like neighborhood playground hoops, implying that the cheering and commentary from the sidelines encouraged players on the court to forget their professionalism.

I’ve seen environments that have similar negative effects on teams. Working within an organization with a culture of negativity or restriction can rub off on teams. Similarly, the impact of a chaotic environment with lots of noise and distraction can undermine productivity. If you experience this, take time to consider how you can mitigate those negative effects. You may not have an option of picking up and working elsewhere, but it may be as simple as proposing a dedicated war room where the team can work in relative peace or asking for budget to buy everyone headphones to drown out the noise. For bigger, systemic cultural issues, it may warrant a conversation with senior management and may take more time to solve.

6. Everyone must choose his or her attitude.

I am not sure if I would have had as much poise and maturity as those three young men displayed in the face of severe adversity. Each one of them had to decide whether they were going to throw in the towel or play their hearts out. Clearly, they chose the latter.

As Scrum Masters, we can encourage, coach, serve, and lead our teams, but the ultimate choice to perform is one made by everyone on the team. If you have a team member that is consistently underperforming or bringing a poor attitude to the work day, pull him or her aside and have a chat. The person may not be self-aware, may be reflecting problems with a peer relationship, may be dealing with personal issues at home, or may lack the tools or knowledge necessary to do the job and is too afraid to speak up. Regardless, provide an opportunity to explain, as well as to partner with you to turn it around. If that still fails, the team member may not be the right fit for the role or project, and should be considered for other opportunities.

7. Huddle with your team in moments of crisis, take their pulse, and empower them with the choice.

After three minutes of intense 5-on-3 play, Coach Johnson gathered his clearly exhausted players for a timeout chat. He could have called the game at that point. No one expected them to win anyway.

While I was not in the huddle, I imagine he checked on his team’s morale and they decided, consciously or not, to continue. As a Scrum Master, it is important to coach our teams and be a servant-leader, but it is equally important to empower them to make the decision on their commitment. After all, they are the ones that must go out on the floor and perform, and live with the results.

8. Velocity matters.

Velocity, as an average, is what we use to plan our sprint iteration and release capacity. That said, it is important to not lose sight of the power of team performance even in the micro-level. While Alabama’s overall game statistics are informative, the true power of their performance came in those last 10 minutes with their remaining players outscoring Minnesota’s team 24 to 16, with 60% of their capacity.

I have seen Scrum teams struggle to get off the ground, or flounder when dealing with a particularly nasty technical spike or feature. However, teams with the right motivation and tools can rebound from a pattern of low performance by the simple example of one sprint’s worth of solid execution and the positive reinforcement that improvement can bring to team morale. Recognize the hard work of your team and be sure to learn from the things that went right during that iteration.

9. Crazy stuff can happen to the most experienced teams and leaders.

One of the most common quotes following the Alabama-Minnesota game was that no one had ever seen anything like it. Coach Johnson led his high school team to the Louisiana State 4A Championship, led the NCAA in assists during his college career, played 16 years in the NBA, coached the Dallas Mavericks and the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, and took over as head coach at Alabama in 2015. With close to 40 years of experience, it is probably safe to say that Johnson has never experienced anything like that game, yet he still kept his cool and helped coach his players through a crisis.

In challenging situations, teams and leaders need to rely upon their experience to give them the tools to handle whatever comes their way.

10. A loss can still be a win.

Despite losing the game by five points, on Nov. 25, 2017, Alabama won the war. One online commentator said there was no way Minnesota could come out of the experience looking good. After all, they only beat Alabama by a spread of five points against a team that only had 3 players on the court. In comparison, Sexton came out looking like a superhero. Already favored to be in the NBA lottery, his stock rose considerably after his solid demonstration of skilled basketball and team leadership. Alabama’s basketball program is also now associated with a game that will go down in history.

For those of us in the world of software, a loss like Alabama’s can be likened to delivering the most important features in the backlog, even if the full MVP is not realized. Scrum is purposely adaptive. Building good software is difficult and things go wrong. However, staying focused on the highest priority items can still result in a product that meets the primary objectives of the organization, is a delight to use, and is cheered by the users, your most important fans of all.

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