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5 Leadership Lessons on the Court, for Business off the Court…

It’s that time of year again, when more than 50 million Americans seem more interested in their brackets and office pools than their work.

Related: What a 19-Year-Old Basketball Prodigy Can Teach You About Conquering Self-Doubt.

March Madness is the season that spurs sports fans to become glued to their TVs and mobile devices, as they constantly check how their favorite college basketball team is faring.

March Madness, moreover, is when the entire nation seemingly comes to a standstill: Estimates are that during the first week of the tournament, employers may be losing nearly $4 billion in revenue. While those figures may seem astronomical, all is not lost.

How’s that? Because the tournament can still teach everyone a few things about business.

March Madness certainly has been examined in terms of the “business lessons” the tourney offers. But you can add in a twist on what the tournament offers — a gender twist, meaning, specifically, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.

Not only can entrepreneurs learn a few skills from this team, and its coach, Geno Auriemma; but remember that March also celebrates Women’s History Month. 

You don’t have to be a basketball fiend to have heard about UConn’s women’s basketball team. The Huskies have been a basketball powerhouse for over 20 years. Indeed, their 107-consecutive winning streak remains intact as they prepare to head to the big dance in a few weeks.

Theirs, in fact, is a very impressive feat, as no other team, in any sport, has come close to this achievement. Recently, UConn won its 21st American Conference Championship (ACC) title, tying the three-day tournament record with 283 points.

The Huskies have been led by Auriemma for 31 years. His impressive resume lists over 950 wins, 11 national titles, 17 Final Four appearances, six perfect seasons and 43 Conference titles. How has Coach Auriemma been able to achieve such a high level of success? By creating a culture where every player is accountable and where players may have the odds stacked against them but are empowered to figure things out on their own, and worry about potential consequences later.

Related: In Basketball and Business, What Separates Winners and Losers?

If you’re wondering, “What does this have to do with me . . . or business?” pay attention. Here are five leadership lessons that entrepreneurs can take away from UConn’s success.

1. Become a “people person” and know your team’s capabilities.

Coach Auriemma has said, “I don’t hire good coaches; I hire good people. If they turn out to be good coaches, too, that’s a plus.” A good coach, or leader, is an essential tool for success. Many have described Auriemma as a “taskmaster,” but he has also been described by rival coaches as a “people person.”

Being a people person doesn’t mean you have to like everyone you work with. It means that as a leader, you need to make an effort to understand what motivates each individual on the team and harness that power to push him or her toward excellence. A good leader strives to move the needle forward, then gets everyone on the team to use the same playbook and execute the same play. Personal success? It’s directly tied into the team’s success.

A true leader knows what the team entire is capable of.

2. Put pedal to the metal.

Coach Auriemma’s practices are known for their high-octane intensity, as each practice is harder and more intense than the one before. Auriemma ups the ante so his players learn to thrive in high-pressured environments, look for solutions to problems on their own and become mentally tougher.

For example, he makes players run “break the press” drills, with six practice players (practice players are almost always men), and tells the players to figure out how to get out of that jam.

If a player isn’t mentally tough enough to handle this constant pressure during practice, he is probably not going to get into the game much, and probably won’t be on the team much longer, either.

In business, employers, similarly, should always up the ante — not to frustrate their entire staff, but to look for ways to challenge them to always be quick on their feet, be nimble in high-pressure situations and always aim to exceed expectations.

Leaders, as well, should empower their team to act on their instincts and industry expertise, without constantly asking for approval. A good leader gives employees the right tools to think and act for themselves and worry about consequences later. As I’ve always said, “Unless you’re a brain surgeon, no one’s going to die.”

3. Own your mistakes.

Auriemma is a self-described “hard ass.” He recruits athletes that are mentally tough, have a team mentality and will stop at nothing to win a championship. He’s said, “If you accept mistakes because it’s a game . . . then as you go on in the rest of your like, and the stakes get higher and things get tougher, the only thing you learned is how to make mistakes and excuses.”

“Excuses are like a-holes,” I wrote in my book, Think Big, Act Bigger. Excuses are easy, addictive and designed to shut things down; and I see them as self-imposed obstacles that prevent us from reaching our full potential. There’s always a reason not to do something, or an explanation why something didn’t happen.

Own your mistakes and avoid excuses. No one wants to hear them.

4. Set realistic goals.

No matter how much experience you have or how big a star you think you are, you always have something to learn. Young players arrive in Connecticut knowing that their odds of their cracking the starting lineup are almost nil. But they also know they’re at the right place to elevate their game, maybe be part of the starting lineup and maybe even win a championship or two.

It’s the same in a business setting. You may have 30 years of experience, but there’s always something that you might not know or fully understand. So, what now? The answer: Become an expert at everything. It’s okay for you as leader not to have a full understanding about a specific topic, but if you want people to follow you and look up to you, you have to study the topic, learn it and master it in order to become that expert.

I don’t know a single person who knows everything, but I know plenty of people who spend hours learning a new task in order to perfect it and gain an edge professionally.

5. Have a back-up plan, always.

How many times have we seen a play break down during a game? We’ve seen plenty of coaches lose their marbles on the sidelines because a player failed to execute a play the way it was drawn up. Sometimes, that breakdown costs the team the game.

Coach Auriemma, for one, has a wide variety of plays for each phase of the tournament. He’s known for drawing up three different ways to start each play, in case “Plan A” breaks down.

If you yourself are trying to draw up new business, trying to impress an existing client with your strategy or simply conducting day-to-day business, know that nothing is ever perfect. Sometimes the variants are minimal and sometimes they are monumental, but if you don’t prepare for each situation, you’ll definitely lose the game.

Related: Leadership Lessons We Can All Learn From Pat Summitt

In the end, practicing at game speed for every possible scenario, and preparing for every possible variable, will be what helps you win the game. Preparation is key — during March Madness, in business and in life. 


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