You’re Sidelined! What Will Happen?

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Your morning leadership check:  You’re sidelined. If you had to leave the team(s) you manage (or have managed) for half a year, and turn them over to your right-hand man or woman, could the team perform as successfully as if you were there?  And what would happen if they actually performed even better than they did when you were around? How would you feel?

I am 100% convinced that humans have mixed feelings about everything.  I mean everything. So, I am all but certain that you would feel a mix of pride in your team, in your substitute and in yourself. (This is actually three feelings, as I think you would have different intensities of pride about each of these three people who would be objects of your pride.)  And among your mixed feelings would be some ego-fear. You might not be consciously aware of these feelings, or you might manage them in mature and politically correct ways, but the feelings would be there:

  • Fear that you’re not as important as you thought you were.
  • Fear that your assistant might be perceived as more competent than you.
  • Fear that your assistant may have made some decisions or acted in ways that upset what you were trying to do with your team.
  • Fear that your assistant might not want to fully turn the reins back over to you.

If you’re a watcher of sports and culture, you have seen this exact scenario played out twice in the NBA in the last three years. Golden State Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr was sidelined for 43 games at the start of the 2015-2016 season. Fans and pundits wrung their hands and predicted a major backslide for the powerhouse team.  Instead, Kerr’s assistant Luke Walton led the team to the longest win streak in NBA history, on the way to the winningest season of any team in NBA history.  Kerr came back and steered them through the playoffs to the NBA championship.  Unfortunately for the Warriors, Walton secured a head coaching position with the Lakers after his great understudy performance for Kerr.

Then this year, Kerr’s debilitating neck and back issues again sidelined him, this time for 11 games during the playoffs. Assistant Mike Brown stepped in and steered them to 11 straight wins before Kerr again returned to lead them to the championship.

What a bunch of amazing leadership lessons emerge from this story! First, Kerr did everything to lend his magic to his assistants. In his calm and positive way he seemed to assure everyone that these coaches were more than ready. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Kerr had empowered the team, so that there was not a cult-like dependence on him, and therefore a great vacuum when he was absent, but instead the team ran a team system, so they were not so dependent on him.  (The Cavs by contrast seemed to display a dependency on King (Lebron) James that may have weakened that team’s confidence and fluidity.) Third, Kerr’s empowering his assistants to thrive actually increased his reputation and power. Kerr is the most secure coach in the NBA. Fourth, humility rules. He clearly managed his fear that others’ success would diminish his standing.

I asked what your feelings would have been, so what were Steve Kerr’s feelings?  When the Warriors were receiving their championship trophy, people had to find Steve Kerr in the crowd (look at this clip 3 minutes in if you want to see what humility looks like) and literally pull him onto the stage.

  • We know from his words that he felt great pride in his team and wanted them to have the moment.
  • He felt and expressed that he was grateful for Mike Brown who had steered the team.
  • I thought that perhaps he felt a little embarrassed that he had only been around for the last 5  games but was given so much credit.

I find him a role model of a “credible leader,” one Kouzes & Posner say “believes and acts upon the paradox of leadership. We become more powerful when we give our power away.”

Humility, gratitude and pride about your team rule when you

Lead with your best self!