March Madness: A Team-Coached Team and Leaders Who Follow


Fifty-nine games have been played in March Madness. Three games are left. One team out of sixty-five will emerge. Don’t you love it? Well, maybe not so much if your team and your bracket have fallen apart.

Of course, I love it for the piercing glances into leadership. Coach Izzo of Michigan State is as dependable for his leadership insights as for his extraordinary intensity on the sidelines and the success of his teams. I loved this reflection I heard from him last Sunday after their win over USC. He was talking about how his players were suggesting to him a strategic edge in the middle of the game. He exulted: “A player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team.” And he continued, “When you have a player-coached team, you listen to them.”

I thought: We should all strive to build player-coached teams.

I wonder of you managers and supervisors and principals and parents: Do you have a coach-coached team or a player-coached team?

What do you think is the most important attitude and the most important practice of those leaders who create player-coached teams? Here are my contenders. Attitude: humble awareness that no matter how smart, invested, hard-working, well-intentioned or obsessive I may be, I can’t possibly know as much as the team does. Then elevate “humble awareness” to “thirst for their knowledge, participation, and commitment.” The most important practice: follow. How’s that for paradoxical leadership?

So, how much do you seek their views, insights, and ownership? And when was the last time you really followed?

Open to your observations (I honestly thirst for them) and your input (I’ll follow)….as we all

Lead with our best selves,


Audio File:  March Madness: A Team-Coached Team and Leaders Who Follow

  • At Leadership Shiawassee last week, Dan Goosen, the coach of the Ovid-Elsie football team that made it to the state championship game this year, told how he starts every season. He has each player write out their personal goals for the year. Then he types them up in one long anonymous list that is then posted in the locker room and in the halls of the high school. He reports that his players, their parents, and the student body take a big interest in the list. It bundles up everyone’s individual goals into a collective mission for the team.

  • Dan – one of the best written pieces you have ever done. Great job and even though I am a proud and loyal Buckeye, I am rooting for Michigan State as they represent the Big 10 and Lead with their best selves!

    Have a great week.


  • I think it’s obvious that in sports, it isn’t just the coach who “owns” the result (the win or the loss), it’s the whole team. It can sometimes be a little more difficult to recognize that the same model exists in the workplace, in government, and everywhere else that leadership exists.

    Coach Izzo and the Spartan players all own the result of their good work this year, and it’s great that they’re in a situation where the players recognized that early on. The East Lansing community and entire state of Michigan are there with them. Go Spartans.

    Tony Ettwein, Kalamazoo

    • Tony,
      I’m not sure I agree with you (for a change). It’s not obvious that the whole team shares in a result, when you’re trying to get drafted, or your parents are at the game (or they’re not and their first questions will be “how many points did you score?”). We default to ego – what’s in it for me.
      But I certainly agree that the job of leaders – whether they’re the authorized boss or a committed team member – is to remind people about the big goal and the shared commitment to it.
      Thanks for weighing in and Go Spartans!

  • Yes, Dan, coaching is an important part of leadership.

    Basketball is an intricate, high-speed game filled with split-second, spontaneous decisions. But that spontaneity is possible only when everyone first engages in hours of highly repetitive and structured practice and agrees to play a carefully defined role on the court. Great basketball coaches, military commanders and business leaders know that practice of the rules of engagement coupled with split-second decisions in execution by their team can make the difference between winning and losing.

    Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller, “blink” (Little Brown), tells us that great leaders know that if you can create the right framework (by everyone knowing the rules and practicing them), when it comes time to perform, your players will engage in fluid, effortless, spur-of-the-moment dialogue and action. The leader provides the overall guidance and intent to the team, coaches them in mastering tools and general techniques through practice and then allows them to use their own initiative and be innovative as they move forward.

    Placing a lot of trust in your subordinates has an overwhelming advantage:

    Allowing people to operate without having to explain themselves within the rules of engagement, focuses their energy and opens the possibility for extraordinary leaps of insight and instinct in decision-making. When the team is “in the flow,” split-second decisions are unconscious flashes of insight that drive extraordinary performance on the basketball court, battlefield or shop floor.

    It is the leader’s job to keep the momentum going; so as not to lose the flow. Insight is not a lightbulb that goes off inside our heads. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out by external means. Know that these kinds of fluid, intuitive, nonverbal experiences are vulnerable… and …your players can drop out of the “zone” or “flow” when you, as their leader, start to become reflective about this rapid cognitive process.

  • Dan,

    I am no longer in the work force but am a mother, sister, daughter, volunteer. I look forward to your weekly blog and what you have to write and I look forward to the shared wisdom of your readers. We are called to be leaders in every aspect of our life and the principles shared are pertinent no matter who we are and what we do. I am better in all my “roles” because of my “Monday Morning Reading”.

    Thank you.

  • Dan:

    Enjoyed your READING FOR LEADING today as much as any other Monday, thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Wondering, however, if in the fifth paragraph, first line, you meant to ask: “What do you think is the most important attitude and the most important practice of those leaders who create TEAM-coached teams”? (instead of coach-coached teams)?

    Again, thank you for your insight into leadership on every front…home, church, sports, work, volunteering. Your experience and wisdom does allow us to LEAD with our BEST selves!

  • My brother-in-law is James MacGregor Burns who has written several books on leadership. He has written about followers as leaders which fits right in with your comments about the MSU team.
    I just returned from Indianapolis where I attended the University of Indiana Randall L. Tobias Center Forum where Jim took part in a video program with a panel on stage reflecting on his comments. They were from Notre Dame, Maryland, Minnesota and Indiana. Fascinating lecture points and comments. Eunice Burns

    • Eunice,
      How cool. I heard your brother-in-law in DC during the Clinton presidency. He is a root, from which hundreds of leadership branches have sprung. I especially love his humility when he comments that no one has ever finished his book, LEADERSHIP. But it’s as quoted as any book out there. A man way ahead of his time and going strong in what must be his 80s – no?

  • Dan,

    I am directing a community theatre production. This is not my first time directing. The cast and crew in our production are all veteran actors including directors of productions in which I was cast. Directing people who have vastly more knowledge than I has taught me that a leader’s first duty is to listen and learn. My job is to weave together their knowledge with my own, and (with the playwright’s framework and building materials) to create a tapestry of sight, sound, and emotion which connects actors and audience for a shared experience that soars beyond the words and the image on the stage.

    I am grateful to the unknown person who said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” It is simple common sense — if I am full of myself, there is no room for learning — or for anyone or anything else. So, Dan, I agree with you that a leader must begin with an attitude of humility. How can I lead (or direct), if I continually get in my own way? When the actors are in sync and listening to each other, and when I am along for the ride, pointing the way — encouraging and guiding the performance, it is like steering a raft down a rapids — exhilarating beyond belief. I cannot stand taller by making them smaller, but if they allow me to stand on their shoulders, I can point the way.

  • Good comments/thoughts for today (and every day). As I age and grow in wisdom & knowledge (I hope), I realize it’s because I enjoy learning new angles, perspectives, ideas, things, etc. from those I meet. As I get more into my current CHEF’S CHALLENGE Event, new world’s open in Culinary, Michigan Agriculture, Silent Sports opportunities, Michigan made spirits/liquors, working with the media, and so much more. It’s exciting, stimulating and very gratifying. I feel sorry for those that have all the answers in their field. What a boring situation.
    Thanks for reminding me what a big world is out there to explore and learn from.

  • When I was coaching in the school system (middle school;formative years), I approached the daily practice regimen on the court with a variety of endeavors. First, i selected different players to lead the stretch and calisthenics portion, just to see how well the led, and exhibited self discipline. Sometimes,I placed the players in a position of pressure, having someone shoot a foul shot near the end of practice….miss, the team ran, make, they hit the locker room! I didn’t single anyone in particular out, rather, I wanted them to bond, regardles of the outcome.
    Several naysayers of my methods voiced their displeasure in m one particular teaching technique…..these kids didn’t havea clear understanding of how to play the game, in the context that I call “instinct” basketball. So after going through some individual skills and conditioning progras, I’d divvy them up into teams and let them play full court ‘pick-up’ ball. Al the while, it was understood, that when I blew the whistle,the game stopped IMMEDIATELY, and everyone stayed where they were. I would then critique the X’s and O’s of the scenario playing out. The incntive was for them to communicate verbally amongst each other, make adjustments,sometimes as per my sideline requests, oft times on their own.
    In high school, two of my young men took their team to the first ever for the entire county state championship title! Playing on instinct is much better than with coach led fears and intrepidation.
    I once went down to Duke to watch my friend’s wife, who played Div. 1 ball, go against the Blue Devils. The young ladies were so afraid to do anything, take any opportunity, that deviated from set plays, that, the outcome was a 50+ point blowout. It didn’t sit well with me, and I explained my reasoning on coaching and reliance on each player to be ‘instinctual’……that team went on to the Sweet Sixteen after the coach adopted a more uniform understanding and expression to each player….”I trust your abilities, improvise and take advantage of your court ‘vision’ and deviate from a set play when the opportunity to score is NOW!”
    I hope the Spartans meet up with UNC and beat them!!

  • Hi, I am the mom of Kolan, the Special Olympics bowler who just happened to become the center of media frenzy last week due to a comment by President Obama. He has bowled 5-300 games and I think he could show the President a thing or two, not just about bowling, but about being a member of a player coached team. He has guided me through his life, by presenting challenges at every turn. I have a “humble awareness” of what he has and has yet to accomplish. And my most important job is to take his “thirst for…knowledge, participation, and commitment” and move us forward. I am still hopeful he will get the invitation from the White House to bowl the president. He has after all challenged the President and it is my job to follow his lead and see how far I can help him go.

    Jan, Kolan’s mom

    • Obama IS a member of a player coached team. THAT is the problem in this instance.

      Example of do as I say, not as I do:

      Star-Kist Tuna’s headquarters are inSan Francisco, Pelosi’s home district. Star-Kist is owned by Del Monte Foods,a major contributor to Pelosi.

      Star-Kist is the major employer in American Samoa, employing 75% of the Samoan workforce.

      Paul Pelosi, Nancy’s husband, owns $17 MILLION dollars of Star-Kist stock.

      In January, ’07, the minimum wage was increaded from $5.15 to $7.25. Pelosi had American Samoa exempted from the increase so Del Monte would not have to pay the higher wage. This would make Del Monte products less expensive than their competitors.

      When the huge bailout bill was passed, Pelosi added an earmark to the final bill, adding $33 MILLION dollars for an ‘economic development credit in American Samoa’.

      Pelosi had repeatedly called the Bush administration “corrupt”…..of which, I agree.

      Can you say “HYPOCRISY” ?????
      More of the same…the change was only who gets to pull the strings on ripping off American citizens.

      Maybe President Obama should start coaching, as he had promised in his “Change” platform for the presidential election.

      On another note, this stimulus package has very little interest in private sector involvement, the majority of funding is going towards building the size, scope, and magnitude of government.

      The Chinese have a saying…….danger/crisis/opportunity… this the model we are moving towards? Anyone with half a brain can see the totalitarian rule that China sets… this an example now for other civilizations??

  • Actually 61 games have been played in the NCAA BB tourney. I like the idea of the player-coached team. When I coach my baseball team this spring I will have the returning players help lead the newcomers. I was able to retrieve two foul balls at a spring training game. I will give them to a couple players on my middle school team, one by blind draw and one by some kind of competition. I’ll ask the team-and anyone else-for ideas for a competition that gives all or nearly all players, not just the stars, a reasonable chance to win.

    • I love the idea of your gifting a player with a piece of memorabilia. I did the same thing with my group of middle school hoopsters. A friend of mine, who played at UVa, Travis Watson, gave me 30 t-shirts…..I gave them to every player, boys and girls teams, just to show them love.
      I placed a signed poster of the mens UVa team in the locker room, telling the boys that someone would get it at the end of the season. I felt that my best players somehow had a sense of entitlement to it…..but in the end, the recipient was a studious young man who worked extremely hard, every day, didn’t get a lot of playing time, never complained, led by quiet example, did what I asked of him, etc. His mother and father let me know how much he, and they, enjoyed my interactive time spent as a coach/mentor. When he went on to high school. He graduated as a star baseball catcher, scholarship based on acedemics, valedictorian of his class. Conversely, in the beginning of my first season, I was appauled at how many kids had bad grades. I rewarded the good grades guys with sitting in the bleachers, then having free shoot-around, as I ran the others until their tongues were hanging out of their mouths. They thought I was a mean man!!! LOL

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