As March Madness kicks into high gear, it offers a convenient opportunity to reflect on what leadership is and how it is manifested by those involved in college basketball. For all of the talk about the capacity of sports to foster leaders and leadership among those who play and compete, athletic settings place a very high premium on followership, uncontested loyalty, and conformity. As a consequence, the connection between sport involvement and leadership development cannot necessarily be assumed. It may be the reason why, when leaders emerge on the court or playing field, they stand out the way they do.
Each era of college basketball has its impact players who have left their marks — from the University of San Francisco’s Bill Russell in the 1950s to Georgetown’s Dikembe Mutombo in the 1990s to the present. Their contributions vary from defying stereotypes around gender, race, and class to offering new visions for how the game should be played to overcoming obstacles by sheer will, determination, and grit. Over the history of the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments there are a number of individuals who have demonstrated important lessons for all business leaders. Here are three:
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Leadership comes from a sense of self and purpose
Elena Delle Donne, one of the nation’s top players at the University of Delaware who went on to be named the 2015 WNBA most valuable player, is well-known for her grounding in family and sense of purpose. Delle Donne made the radical move to leave the sport as a first–year basketball player from the University of Connecticut to question whether she wanted to be away from her family and deal with the rigors of the game. Leaving a career path that was well laid out but devoid of meaning, she returned home to her sister, Lizzie, born deaf and blind and subjected to more than 30 surgeries in her lifetime. By stepping away from the limelight, Delle Donne ironically took several significant steps toward it. As she rediscovered the game and returned to it on her own terms in 2009, she recognized that her high profile put her in a position to influence. And she has done that on multiple issues. Most recently, she has challenged sexist stereotypes that continue to limit female athletes in the sport of basketball and she has called for a reimaging of how the game is played. For business leaders, Delle Donne offers an example of a leader who uses her own struggles and challenges to create a legacy.
Leadership is often uncomfortable
In the competitive arena of high stakes college basketball, to be described as being “barely in the top 100” presents its own set of challenges. Star basketball player Denzel Valentine from Michigan State University was one of those players in high school. Some college recruits were not convinced that he had matured enough in his game and worried that his shooting needed refinement. Those criticisms didn’t discourage him. Instead, he took them to heart as a player, improving his shooting and taking steps to learn more about the game he aspired to compete in. A native of Lansing, MI, he ultimately won his spot on his hometown team and father’s alma mater. In his four years, he made incredible contributions playing for the Spartans, where his shooting percentage rose from 28.1% to 44.7%, earning him recognition this year as the Big Ten Player of the Year and the Big Ten Tournament Most Valuable Player. Whether one leads on the court or in the board room, the ability to take a hard look inward at times — to recognize that excellence comes at a price — is a reminder that challenges are part of the journey.
Leadership requires going down paths less traveled
A retired professional basketball player and former UCLA power forward who competed on the 1995 championship team, Ed O’Bannon was willing to withstand the pressures that come from standing up to a college sport establishment criticized for the exploitation of athletes. Since 2009, he has steadfastly and earnestly advocated for college athletes to be treated fairly and humanely since filing suit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In O’Bannon, the penultimate leadership lesson is offered. The actions leaders take at times may put them at odds with powerful forces that seek to undermine or derail them. To prevail in those kinds of circumstances requires an understanding that to be a leader is not for everyone and to lead effectively and over the long haul requires inner reserves of courage and determination.
Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., is a professor of sports management at Drexel University.