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What Business Leaders Can Learn From March Madness Players About Overcoming Setbacks

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 05 SEC Women's Tournament - South Carolina v Mississippi StateCOLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 05 SEC Women's Tournament - South Carolina v Mississippi State
South Carolina forward Aja Wilson (22) boxes out during 1st half action in the 2017 SEC Championship game between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Mississippi State Bulldogs on March 05, 2017 at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, SC. Doug Buffintgton—Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As Mark Madness kicks off today, viewers and fans will see teams fight against the odds; players powering to the basket and into history; and coaches making tough personnel and management decisions in front of millions of people. Even if they don’t care for college basketball, business leaders should tune in, as there’s much they could learn from the NCAA’s coaches and players. Here are four that immediately come up in my mind:

Lesson 1: View crisis as opportunity
In the run-up to the NCAA men’s tournament last week, the University of Michigan men’s basketball team was situated in the middle of the pack within the Big Ten, offering modest hope, but no real assurances of making a run at the Big Ten conference title. As the team embarked on their journey to Washington, D.C., to play in the Big Ten championship tournament, high winds jolted their plane, causing it to slide off the runway during takeoff.

An upsetting and unnerving accident that could have easily turned into a justifiable distraction served instead as a catalyst for the team to upend No. 1 seed Purdue and dispense with the Wisconsin Badgers, a team that was the reigning champion three years running. With a swarming defense and lights-out shooting accuracy, the Wolverines dominated a strong and experienced Wisconsin team by 55 points, turning crisis into opportunity.

Lesson 2: Play the hand you’re dealt
Whether in business, life, or sports, sometimes things just aren’t fair. Such is the hand that the University of South Carolina women’s team has been dealt again this year. While bracketology is designed, in theory, to provide the best and most balanced competitive environment leading into the NCAA Women’s Final Four, the Lady Gamecocks, one of the top four teams in the country, has to travel across more time zones and distance than any other team in the tournament, and for the third time in four years.

While expressing disappointment about being further from their highly vocal and supportive fan base than other teams, South Carolina head women’s coach Dawn Staley exhibited the resolve that has been the team’s hallmark since she took over nearly a decade ago. As reported in SEC Country, Staley noted that her team would take on anyone, anywhere, at any time, saying, “Obviously, the committee is putting us to the test.”

Lesson 3: Remember that words matter
Generations of college graduates, local communities, and networks of fans and followers around the globe are drawn to the March Madness drama. For embattled institutions, such as Baylor University, where ongoing investigations into sexual assault allegations have raised a cloud of suspicion regarding how women are treated there as students, athletes, and employees, the tournament presents a forum for reputational repair or harm, depending on how key spokespeople express themselves.

When head women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey earned her 500th career win at Baylor last month, she addressed Baylor University critics in front of a hometown crowd, saying, “If somebody [is] around [you] and they ever say, ‘I will never send my daughter to Baylor,’ you knock them right in the face.” While Mulkey claimed to have grown weary of the public scrutiny directed at Baylor and offered an unfiltered assessment of what she believed to be an unfair assessment, time, place, tone, and choice of words matter. Now entering the NCAA women’s tournament as one of the top four teams in the nation, the controversy stirred by her commentary lingers even now, and will likely surface should the team end up playing in the Final Four, which will be held this year in Dallas.


Lesson 4: Lead for the common good and generations to come
I am unconvinced that there is a hardline cause-and-effect relationship between leadership development and sport participation. There are too many influences in life—parental, familial, educational, religious, political, cultural, racial, gendered—to make such a claim. Leaders can, however, be revealed in sport. And leaders of substance can be found, as a case, in point, on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.

In their conscious choice to assert their voices and influence on social and political issues of the day, Badgers players Nigel Hayes, Jordan Hill, and Bronson Koenig exhibit active moral compasses and strength to stand up for issues that may not be popular. Koenig, a member of the Ho Chunk tribe, joined the Dakota Access Pipeline protest at Standing Rock last September before the start of the season. In a climate that discourages players from challenging the system in which they play, Hayes has stepped forward representing other players (past, present, and future) by serving as a named plaintiff in Jenkins v. NCAA, a challenge against the NCAA and the Power Five conferences. They represent a rising generation of leaders who embrace the common good and wish to make an impact for generations to come.

Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., is a professor of sports management at Drexel University.