What Can We Learn from Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens is remarkable. He’s the coach of the Boston Celtics. Before that, he coached the Butler Bulldogs. Some people consider him to be the best basketball coach in America. Why is he held in such high regard? Well, of course, it’s because his teams win. But it’s more than that: it’s because his teams win against teams with superior talent. In other words, his teams win because of him.

Other teams win because of their coach — sometimes. Some teams win in spite of their coach. And some teams lose because of their coach. But Mr. Stevens’ teams log more wins because of their coach than other teams — at least that’s what the evidence suggests. Mr. Stevens is that good.

So what’s the difference? It’s important to know because the skills are probably transferable. In other words, the same qualities are likely to yield similar outstanding performance in other arenas, whether they be in business or nonprofits.

From what I’ve been able to discern, here are some of the keys to Mr. Stevens’ success:

  • he’s himself – He doesn’t try to be like some other great coach. He stays within his own personality and abilities. He’s authentic. He is who he is.
  • he cares – He cares about his players and not merely whether they win games for him. Caring matters. Not everyone does.
  • loves data – He doesn’t rely on hunches or feelings; rather, he collects and analyzes facts (data) and is good at pulling insights and lessons from the data.
  • learns from others – He observes — watches what others are doing that’s successful. He never thinks he’s the repository of all the good ideas. There doesn’t appear to be an ounce of arrogance or hubris in his body.
  • attention to detail – “If you take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.” I recall Joe Paterno saying this years ago. It seems all great coaches understand this. Mr. Stevens is no exception.
  • clarity (everyone knows their role) – Confusion does not reign on Mr. Stevens’ court. Everyone knows their job and expectations are crystal clear.
  • control things you can actually control (don’t be distracted by that which you can’t control) – This reminds me of the philosophy of the legendary John Wooden, who won 10 national championships at UCLA in a 12-year period. Coach Wooden didn’t care who the competition was. He and his team simply went about the business of being the best they could be — addressing the things that were in their control. It seems Mr. Stevens does the same.
  • never get upset over someone missing a shot – It’s important that people not be reamed out for trying. There is nothing to be served by eroding people’s confidence. Everyone will miss shots. Everyone will make mistakes. That’s part of the game. Of life. It serves no purpose to try to hold people to a ridiculous, unrealistic standard. Indeed, it’s counterproductive.
  • no histrionics – Histrionics put the spotlight on the coach. And serve as a major distraction to the team. There are never histrionics in Mr. Stevens’ world. It’s as if he’s the anti-Bobby Knight, another legendary coach who made his mark in what’s now my home state of Indiana.
  • results matter – He wins. If he didn’t, no one would care. It reminds me of a plant manager I once had who insisted he was doing everything right. But the plant’s safety record was unacceptable. We made a change. The plant became a leader in safety, almost overnight. Leadership matters. Results matter. I’m also reminded of another college coach. Everyone likes him. He’s a good man. But he hasn’t been a winner in years, to the detriment of his players and his college. In the world of sports and business, results matter. Effort is necessary, but no one is paid for effort. That said, it’s surprising how many people can retain their jobs without achieving results. But I can’t imagine Mr. Stevens ever being satisfied with that. To him, results matter.

Not everyone can be as good as Mr. Stevens. We all don’t have his abilities and attributes. But we can be the best we can be.

Further, we can surround ourselves with people who are trying to be their best. Mediocrity is the dominant cultural trait of many organizations. If you’re content to surround yourself with mediocrity, there’s a good chance you’ll be mediocre. But if you surround yourself with people who care, and who are trying to do their best, it will bring out the best in you.

It’s not complicated. It’s just not the norm.

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