Business Lessons From the Final Four

I frequently draw from the military and sports worlds for leadership lessons. Wooden and Lombardi gave us examples as relevant and compelling as Winston Churchill from politics or GE’s Jack Welch from business.

The teams that have made the NCAA’s Final Four provide lessons that are easily exportable to business. A few of those follow:

Sometimes the “bad guys” win. Kentucky’s head coach John Calipari has run what journalists call “renegade programs” since he was the head basketball coach at the University of Massachusetts a couple of decades ago. Investigations seem to follow him around from one college program to another. Even when he appears to be operating within the letter of the law, he rarely seems to operate within its spirit. His players rarely graduate. His recruiting methods are routinely questioned, and yet he is always employed and always wins.

In business, it’s easy to find low-life executives who provide negative examples from which we can derive rationalizations, justifications and excuses for unethical or “borderline” behavior. I’ve personally known some executives who operate “on the fringe.” Some of those bad actors, however, achieve great wealth for themselves and their companies.

You always have a choice; you can follow the dysfunctional, unethical example of others, or you can be the example – the role model – for others. You can be a “what I’m doing isn’t that bad” person, or one who believes that character is truly revealed when no one is looking, and the odds are slim that transgressions will be publicly revealed.

More in the next bulleted point:

Wisdom and character most often trump talent. Every year, a few Universities and Colleges get their “pick of the litter” when it comes to basketball talent. For some schools, a kid’s potential to graduate is a lot less of a factor in his admission than his ability to “stick the three.” At many of these institutions, coaches and administrators create scenarios to explain to themselves how a “borderline” kid might graduate, given the appropriate mentorship and tutoring, while either their intention to provide those things or the kid’s intention to accept them are in serious doubt.

Some other coaches and administrators, however, have an unflinching dedication to “doing the right thing,” as opposed to “doing the expedient thing.” For them, integrity is a ground-rule rather than just one among many considerations that inform how they run their programs.

In your business and life, is integrity a ground-rule, or just another consideration among many as you make decisions and take action?

Age is not a prerequisite for wisdom and character. Two of the Final Four coaches are really young guys. Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart is 33. Butler coach Brad Stevens is 34. When I listen to interviews with these two guys, the phrase that comes to mind is “old souls.” While one seems more reserved, calculating, deliberate and methodical (Stevens), and the other more effervescent, emotional and enthusiastic (Smart), they both strike me as guys who have learned and then employed life’s lessons.

I have written that “Wisdom is imparted by experience, but not always. A huge difference lies between having ten years of experience and one year of experience ten times. For experience to result in wisdom, reflection, judgment and behavioral adjustments have to ensue.”

Each of these guys seems to have taken the experience that he’s acquired in his young life and extrapolated that into something bigger, better, and wiser. Each would be as successful as a business leader as he is as a basketball coach.

In your life, is “the whole” of your lessons greater than the sum of the parts?

• Smaller, less significant competitors often become big Kahunas. College basketball experts and talking heads refer to VCU and Butler as “mid-majors.” While no one seems to have a great definition of that term, I think what it means is “schools that do not have long, countrywide reputations as basketball powerhouses, who have not historically made it very far in the NCAA tournament, who play in smallish facilities, who do not enjoy having massive recruiting and scholarship budgets, and who compete in conferences with schools that have similar limitations.”

After making the NCAA tournament several times in recent years and the Final Four this year and last year, Butler is moving out of mid-major status. VCU is still firmly entrenched there.

As I recall, UCONN was classified as a mid-major until 20 years ago when Jim Calhoun took the reins of their program. Who would call UCONN a mid-major today?

In business, wasn’t Southwest Airlines a mid-major until fifteen to twenty years ago? When I flew into Baltimore Washington International Airport in the early 90s, USAirways (then USAir) dominated. Southwest has effectively driven them out coupled with USAir’s own incompetence. Who heard of Capital One Financial in 1995? The first time I heard “What’s in your wallet?” I didn’t get it. Today, their brand is as recognizable as McDonald’s. Howard Schultz not only built a company and a brand, he also created a category. In 1990, coffee was still a breakfast beverage; now, it’s a lifestyle drink. My point is big companies were once small; powerhouse brands were not always so; potent competitors were once struggling start-ups.

The lesson for you: Never, ever create excuses for tough competition or tough times. I hear it all the time. Executives and business owners blame regulation, competition, Bangalore, third-world slave shops, recessions, expansions, sinus headaches, male pattern baldness or the full moon for their companies’ lousy performance when the right answer is always in the mirror! Don’t be one of those. When times are tough, double-down. If your company is small, invest in growth. Own your results; own your life!!

Copyright 2011 Rand Golletz. All rights reserved.