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30 April, 2014 Posted by John G. Self Posted in Leadership
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Servant Leadership On the Basketball Court

Posted April 30th, 2014 | Author: John G. Self

Sometimes life’s best lessons come not from the hallowed halls and classrooms of academia or gleaming glass towers filled with high priced management advisors, but from sports arenas and the coaches who guide their young impressionable players.

Here is what I mean.  Business books, often written by consultants, are frequently filled with maxims meant to reinforce practical wisdom.  The problem is that there are so many maxims that they frequently conflict with one another.  If an executive attempted to apply each lesson we would see rampant management schizophrenia.  I hope you will pardon my tongue-in-cheek examples:

  • Keep your eye on the ball
  • Keep your ear to the ground
  • Hold your head high
  • Keep your head down
  • Keep your nose to the grindstone
  • Keep your shoulder to the wheel

And of course, think outside the box.  Can you imagine the mass confusion that would occur if every MBA in a large organization decided to jump out of the box at the same time?

You get the point…

But then there are the books that stir your hope that there are indeed people providing advice who are in it for more than book sales, consulting engagements or speaker’s fees.

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John Calipari

John Calipari, head basketball coach at Kentucky, spent some time with Charlie Rose on his Award winning PBS interview show on Friday night to discuss his book, Players First: Coaching From the Inside Out

I was impressed.  In a world where truth is hard to find in the fog of spin and self-promotion, I hope that Mr. Calipari is the real deal based on what he says he tries to teach his team: life skills.  I got the feeling that Mr. Calipari would make a successful executive coach if he ever decided to give up his very well paying day job.  Given that the best of the elite basketball players so often complete only one year of college before they are drafted by the NBA, providing anything more than instruction on basketball is an amazing accomplishment.

When Mr. Rose asked what he tried to teach the players, Mr. Calipari, without hesitation, said servant leadership.  Now that is not an easy concept to teach to driven executives, much less a group of talented recent high school graduates who have been the center of attention ever since they could think.  They come to Kentucky as star shooters but they will be asked to do more than just score points.  They will be part of a team, to step back so someone can step forward.  To do more for their team than for themselves.

When asked how he handles the stars who leave after only a year, Mr. Calipari explained that he wants them to do what is right for themselves and their families and that he will figure out what to do with what he has left later.  “I tell them I am not going to use you; you use me for all that I know.”  When an athlete is drafted Mr. Calipari says he sits down with them and has the money conversation.  Most of the high draft picks will instantaneously have more money than they can ever spend and it is overwhelming. 

Here are a few of the Caliparisms that I liked: 

  • Money has wings, fame is fleeting
  • Chase the money and you will never be happy.  Pursue excellence and the money will follow
  • When you make life about yourself, it is very difficult and very lonely.  When you make life about everyone else, life becomes easy 

To illustrate that these student athletes do listen, Mr. Calipari said two of his stars from Kentucky’s last national championship team, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who were drafted first and second in the NBA draft that year, took the fourth and fifth most shots on the team; they supported their team members.  Several other former Kentucky basketball stars that now play in the NBA gave $1 million each to charity.

I hope he is the real deal.

© 2021 John Gregory Self

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