Lessons for Life From the Basketball Court
BusinessCoach’s Corner

Lessons for Life From the Basketball Court

Josh Pastner has the ability to blend old-school philosophies with fast-paced, modern societal norms.

Fifty years ago you could play sports, be a leader in business and live your life while keeping all three separate. The areas where these three disciplines intersected were minimal.

A few great people, however, managed to put them all together. The top three college coaches/leaders of men who come to mind from that era are Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and, of course, John Wooden. They not only won basketball games, but also created men out of boys and successful leaders from basketball players.

Is such success possible with today’s generation?

In 2017, communication happens in the blink of an eye. Sports teams have become big businesses. Business takes over people’s lives. The lines separating life, business and sports are being erased. Trying to keep a balance among all three might seem impossible.

Instead, we should try to keep all three in the proper perspective. If we take a breath and step back a moment, we can still see how sports, business and life can exist on their own. Once we have a proper perspective, we can try to blend them together.

It takes a person with the right outlook to make that happen.

While chatting with the head men’s basketball coach at Georgia Tech, Josh Pastner (CJP), I was struck by his ability to blend old-school philosophies with fast-paced, modern societal norms. Together, we compared and contrasted his view of coaching with business, life and leadership lessons.

Let’s look at what we can all learn from CJP.

He begins every day with an “attitude of gratitude.” He reads words of inspiration from Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s book “Wisdom Each Day.” He then preaches to his staff and players that “you lose with entitlement and you win with appreciation.” Recognizing that many people think today’s kids feel entitled, he contrasts those two attitudes all the time.

He takes that approach a step further. CJP’s self-declared No. 1 strength is his positive view of people and life. His cup runneth over every day with encouragement.

Take a moment to think about that concept. Matching positivity with gratitude is a winning formula not just for CJP, but for all of us.

A key leadership principle is the ability to communicate to people their worth and potential so clearly that they can see those attributes in themselves. When you can achieve this level of personal motivation, getting your team to work and play together at a high level becomes easier.

As a result of such empowerment, in eight years as a head coach, his teams have never lost more than two games in row. Put into easy terms, CJP gets more results with honey than with vinegar.

That’s not to say he doesn’t hold people accountable. Learning from his time at the University of Memphis, CJP has better defined his vision for the organization and has clear roles for everyone. In his view, everyone craves structure and the discipline that goes with it. He enforces this in such a positive way that a player may not even realize how much he is growing day to day.

Who wouldn’t want to exceed expectations when his biggest cheerleader is his coach?

This leads us to self-awareness. We agreed that the top component to a successful person is a self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses. You can’t be good at everything. CJP believes that you should hire people who complement you and are in alignment with your vision and goals.

If you maximize your strengths and manage your weaknesses (hiring the right people), you create a synergistic energy on your team. Combining all of this, you will set your organization up for success.

But what happens when things don’t go as planned?

Like all great leaders, CJP takes failure in stride. It is a part of life. His motto is “Give your best energy, effort, enthusiasm and execution to everything. Then both wins and losses will become learning experiences. Trust the process. The key here is to be reflective. What worked? What didn’t work? How can I be better tomorrow? A value of constant improvement is a good recipe for future success.”

Three decades ago, a pair of academics named Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner began studying leadership. After hundreds of interviews and surveys (including Smith, Rupp and Wooden), they concluded that exemplary leaders share five practices:

  • Model the way (set an example for how you want others to act).
  • Inspire a shared vision (get buy-in for a common goal and believe in it passionately).
  • Challenge the process (see risks as opportunities).
  • Enable others to act (empower those around you).
  • Encourage the heart (focus on the humanity of people and make them “feel like heroes”).

Do you want to lead an organization like Coach Pastner runs the basketball program at Georgia Tech?

It’s easy. Just be humble and grateful, curious and self-aware. Communicate and empower others. When bad things happen, use it as a learning tool. Most of all, create something bigger than yourself.

Sometimes, with the right person running your organization, it pays to go back to the timeless principles of a half-century ago.

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