Leadership Case Studies

Successful basketball coaches can inspire community coaches to improve themselves but they are not the only leaders who should be studied. Over the course of history, philosophers, economics, officers, teachers and other thinkers have solved a number of complex problems that coaches face on a daily basis. Coaches may want to study history privately or they may wish to include intersperse lessons and quotes as they work with younger players and teams.

Although Vice-Admiral Nelson is fondly remembered for saving England from invasion during the Napoleonic wars, he delegated a great deal of authority to those under his command. Although he received ultimate credit for numerous naval victories, his “band of brothers” was instrumental in his success.

No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.Horatio Nelson

Nelson believed that the men he commanded should know what he wanted to accomplish and why, not simply how it should be done. The captains had extensive experience and knowledge and if they saw an opening that would more effectively accomplish the fleet’s goals, they were free to take advantage of it.

Players need to understand why certain plays are designed the way that they are and what they intended to achieve so they can make effective read and react decisions. The objectives should be succinctly stated so they can be followed under pressure. Like Nelson’s discussions of naval tactics over dinner, coaches can periodically explain basketball strategies, for example during a lull after practice or in a team meeting.

Nelson also believed in effective communication. He aided the Royal Navy in adopting a diverse set a flags that could quickly transmit sophisticated orders and allowed him to alter his commands as the battle progressed. This proved to be a massive advantage at the turn of the nineteenth century.

At the Battle of Copenhagen, he composed a letter asking for his opponent’s surrender and sent an aid to fetch wax in order to seal it. The aid was killed by a sniper’s bullet so he dispatched another aid to get the wax. When asked whether it would be easier simply not to seal the letter, Nelson said that if it were left unsealed, the enemy might think that it was written in haste. Clear and deliberate communication establishes a philosophy of openness and honesty throughout the season and contributes to more effective execution during games.

Nelson worked on two dozens ships as his career progressed and served under several different captains. He never forgot those who helped him rise through the ranks and aided those under his command do likewise. Nelson would never order a sailor to perform a task that he would not so he maintained a fair and balanced perspective and always held the respect of his colleagues and subordinates.

Machiavelli always argued that the only qualification for a position of power was holding said position. Coaches find themselves in a role where they must not only manage players during games but guide them so they can make good decisions when not with the team. That requires an understanding of how people operate and the willingness to carry out whatever actions are necessary.

Minds are of three kinds. One is capable of thinking for itself, another is able to understand the thinking of others and a third can neither think for itself nor understand the thinking of others.Niccolò Machiavelli

The ideal ruler should be a person of virtue, capable of varying their conduct as the circumstances dictate. Every situation is different and should be handled differently (“as the winds of fortune and circumstances constrain”). Fortuna is another concept described in The Prince: an unexpected event that can be managed if anticipated but very destructive if not managed swiftly. A coach cannot prepare for every situation that may occur on or off the court but they can establish a consistent framework for problems with players, teachers, parents or spectators.

Machiavelli echoed the view that humans only comply with rules because of consequences or fear of consequences. A coach need not constantly punish players but must at least create the perception that all team members are accountable for their actions. Young people are finding themselves and may not develop responsibility independently. Choices made initially because of potential consequences will eventually become good habits.

Setting high standards at the beginning of the year will create a first-impression bias but without damaging the team environment. Players will be caught up in the enthusiasm of the new season and will not mind facing penalties. Afterwards, the rules can be relaxed slightly to handle very unique situations.

If it becomes necessary to implement several negative actions, several decisions can be made in a short period of time. The combined effect will be less than had the penalties been distributed over the course of several weeks or months. A coach can also maintain the positive sentiment for the beginning of the year by stringing out rewards through the season.

Overall, a basketball season should be a positive event. Coaches (for the sake of the players and for their own personal stress levels) should emphasize the value of the “happening” – in addition to the value of the “act” (wins and losses). Machiavelli believed that this nebulous feeling of being alive and coming together was an enjoyable part of life.

No appropriate (or effective) decision can be made with understanding the players and how they think. It’s possible that there might be significant conflict when a coach attempts to change the philosophy of a young person. Such a process should not be initiated without a good comprehension of where the student-athlete is at the moment, breaking a long development process into smaller goals.

Nash equilibrium can predict the reactions of certain players in critical situations. When working with young people, coaches may find Machiavelli’s quote about three types of people to be accurate. Anecdotal evidence can be combined with a science like economics; each of the three types of personalities might react in two or three ways to a given event.

If games are an extension of self and young players are developing their personality for the first time, an individual game such as basketball could lead to greater selfishness or poor decisions. Coaches must recognize the make-up of their players and use game theory to predict their reactions. They could gage the players’ reactions and spend more time analyzing exactly what it means. Coaching skill lies in knowing what buttons to press with each player in order to develop quality and force it to rise to the top.

What truly is logic? Who decides reason? It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reason can be found.John Nash
Marcus Aurelius was a late stoic philosopher who believed in suppressing many of his emotions with logic. Stoicism implies that there is a rational force that organizes the universe, which is divided into the active and the passive. The active fulfills the role of Fate but the passive is matter that lies ready for use by anyone. If a coach or player do not take initiative, the team will miss many opportunities for improvement.

As clutch hitting statistics show, there really is no such thing as clutch hitting or “lucky” and “unlucky”. Teaching student-athletes to make informed choices during training sessions, practices and classes leads to informed choices during games. It is critical that players develop positive habits based on sound principals.

You can react with indignation if you want but they will carry on without you.Marcus Aurelius

Coaches should teach players how to control themselves in the face of adverse circumstances, opponents or spectators. Showing adolescents how to give feedback to each other in practice, advising youth how to show leadership and instructing players on how to talk to officials can diffuse potentially negative situations.

It’s important to play with passion but the team should remain under control. Coaches should avoid provoking negative emotions like anger, fear or embarrassment if possible. Adolescents face enough stress on a daily basis and sport should be an outlet for them, not an additional worry.

Plato often expressed an urge to leave the repugnance of typical human relations behind in order to focus on the purity of beautiful forms. One could say that coaches want to escape the minutiae of coaching in a school setting in order to focus on the joy of the game.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.Plato

It is true that student-athletes must deal with many issues during their high school years and tolerance is paramount. This absolutely does not entail enabling poor behaviour and lowering standards. Glaucon (one of Plato’s speakers) states that men are only just because they fear the consequences of breaking the law. A coach must be prepared to enforce the penalties for misbehaviour; however he must do it the right way. Coaches must walk softly and carry a big stick.

When imposing team rules or decisions, school or coaching staff should be certain to elaborate upon their philosophy as much as possible. This makes players stakeholders in the decision and helps create buy-in. Making one-side decisions and relying upon extrinsic motivation can only carry a team so far; coaches should utilize collaboration so that players comprehend the how and the why as much as the what and generate their own intrinsic motivation.

In The Republic, Plato writes that justice in the soul consists in each part of the soul doing its own. So if each team member is honestly doing their best and improving themselves, the team is going to be in good shape. If a coach has also conveyed a strong definition of the term justice, using teachable moments, they will have fulfilled their job as a teacher as well.

Smith believed that reason is a slave to the passions (and rightfully so). Coaches should consider this when instructing teams, especially regarding behaviour off the court. Teachers and coaches must not only impart the fundamentals of good decision making but also convince student-athletes why this course of action is correct.

The economist and philosopher devoted extensive time to the discussion of how we determine what is good and what is bad. Coaches should know that they can never govern unilaterally and must always maintain sympathy and understanding for the players they instruct and evaluate.

Team building can also be improved by sympathy between team members. If everyone on the team acts conscientiously, an invisible hand will move the team towards its goals. Coaches model the way and help players discover their feelings of sympathy.

Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principle lustre.Adam Smith

Extrinsic motivation – a coach directing a player or a teammate encouraging another – is a fire than burns brightly albeit briefly. Intrinsic motivation – the goals we have for ourselves – fuel a fire than burns much longer and very often more intensely. Coaches must motivate and support young people to control themselves and their emotions. Whether it is because of self-actualization needs or the enjoyment they can get from helping others, players need self-control to succeed on the court, in school and in life.

Major-General Brock oversaw Upper Canada in the years leading up to the War of 1812 and during the first few months of the conflict. When he first arrived in Canada, he recognized that the region was ill equipped to handle a potential invasion and undertook extensive preparations to reinforce existing fortifications and forces. It was not possible to predict the precise point of the American invasion but this massive reorganization contributed to some early victories and raised the confidence of army regulars, militia members and citizens alike.

Take breath boys; you will need it in a few moments.Isaac Brock

Brock won the respect of soldiers on both sides of the border, aboriginal allies and Canadians by acting boldly. Upon hearing that a mutiny was imminent at Fort George, he immediately boarded a bateau and dealt with the issue decisively (later, he warned Colonel Sheaffe about his overbearing nature and the need to be flexible). When American forces briefly invaded Sandwich (now Windsor), Brock used the incursion as justification to set aside his mostly defensive orders and attack Fort Detroit.

Defending Queenston Heights, he was killed leading a charge; Brock had led the charge himself because he believed that time was of the essence (although more traditional tactics by the now Major-General Sheaffe later prevailed). During his funeral in the following days, American guns on the other side of the Niagara River saluted him.

Dealing with limited resources, Brock relied on creativity and improvisation. Corresponding with William Hull in Detroit, Brock hinted that he would not be able to control the Native warriors led by Tecumseh. Later, the two paraded their forces in a circular pattern in front of the fort, making a small group seem much longer and Hull surrendered without a shot fired.

Lawrence of Arabia helped guide an Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I. The premise of his operations was to start from the bottom and work upwards. By making local tribes stakeholders in the rebellion, he engendered greater participation that had Britain simply made alliances with the Arab leaders.

Lawrence believed that an Arab uprising against the Turks would suit Britain’s interest but knew that it would not succeed without according the local culture a fair amount of respect and freedom. Teams work best when coaches team members leeway to make some choices, backed up by consistent consequences.

Another sound principle was the recognition that every army is unique and every battle is different. Before committing to a plan of action, a coach should take the time to thoroughly understand the situation, whether it is by using statistics, video or a distinctive perspective.

Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals.T.E. Lawrence

The players we coach are not the same as us. Coaches picked up their technical and tactical knowledge over the course of many years; they should be understanding of their mistakes as they learn. Lawrence realized that the onus for his self-actualization fell on his shoulders alone. He would not become wiser or more skilled by waiting; he had to make it happen.

What impressed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about Wooden – during his recruitment and throughout his life – was Wooden’s focus on life lessons beyond basketball. An English teacher before becoming a basketball coach, Wooden strongly believed in making the most of one’s potential, a lesson that Abdul-Jabbar recollected even before his final game as a professional. Basketball was only one medium to practice dealing with adversity.

Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.John Wooden

When the N.C.A.A. outlawed the dunk in 1967 because of the Abdul-Jabbar’s success, Wooden framed it as a good thing: he told the All-American that it would allow him to develop a soft touch around the basket, a skill that would be needed in the professional ranks. Abdul-Jabbar agreed with this interpretation and bought into the concept so he applied himself even more. During his prime, he shot seventy-two percent at the rim and sixty-seven percent in the paint.

Wooden valued sport because it enabled athletes and coaches to focus and improve themselves so he adapted to some of the challenges posed by Abdul-Jabbar and other players. Rather than remain set in his own ways when Abdul-Jabbar announced that he had converted to Islam, Wooden respected his choice and sought to learn more about his beliefs. For Abdul-Jabbar, a bus trip throughout the Midwest where Bruin players and coaches discussed the meaning of life and religion was his most memorable moment of his college years.

Above else, these historical figures are great thinkers. Though their portraits may fade and the pages of their works turn yellow, they still have plenty to offer in today’s world. Coaches should keep an open mind; there are plenty of resources to help them lead and improve their processes. For any leader, the outcome should be self-actualization but there are countless processes that can lead to success.