6.5 Lessons From Basketball

Once they squeaked by the Houston Rockets, it was predictable that the Golden State Warriors would squash the Cleveland Cavaliers in the National Basketball League Finals. For those of you who are not basketball fans bear with me for a moment. Let me show you how lessons from basketball can make your meetings more effective.

I begin with a personal note. I was born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts where basketball was invented by Dr. James Naismith in 1891, and where the eponymous Memorial Hall of Fame sits today. Since early childhood, basketball has been part of the air I breathe. It was only later in life that I began to draw lessons from this game and relate them to how we talk with one another. Here are a few of these lessons.

1. Have rules and a referee. Dr. Naismith laid out only 13 rules for the game. One of them was “No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed.”

In meetings it’s helpful to have a set of ground rules to which you all agree and to hold yourselves accountable and/or to ask one person, perhaps a facilitator, to hold people accountable.

2. Involve everyone. The Golden State Warriors win when they make an average of 300 passes of the ball per game. With five players on the court in 48 minutes that means that for every trip down the court at least three to four players touch the ball creating “assists” (a pass to a teammate that leads to a field goal) and “good looks” at the basket.

In meetings, encouraging everyone to participate enlivens the meeting and opens the door to new ideas (“assists”) that can help the group achieve the goal of the meeting.

3. Engage in teamwork. When asked about the success of the Golden State Warriors, here’s what some of the players said: “We support the person in front of us and behind us.” “We all ride for each other.” “We have a team that enjoys each other.”

What does teamwork look like in a meeting? It’s making all those productive “passes” so everyone can touch the conversation in some way by listening, asking questions, contributing ideas, following ground rules, and enjoying each other.

4. Define your purpose. The Warriors have the “same focus, same goal, and same approach.”

At the start of every meeting clarify what you hope to accomplish. Build agreements on the desired outcomes and agenda to make sure everyone has the same focus, goal, and approach to the meeting.

5. When you screw up, move on. Basketball games and conversations are fast. When a player misses a basket, makes a bad pass, or gets called for a foul, if he stops to berate himself or protest the call, the game continues and he misses a chance to help the team on the defensive end or create the next play.

In meetings, perhaps you didn’t say what you wanted to say as eloquently as you hoped, or you got interrupted or interrupted someone else. If you take time to stew or get absorbed in you inner consternation, you miss the opportunity to help the group achieve the outcome of the meeting.

6. Develop your secret sauce. For the Warriors it is joy and play. They love to play the game and they care about each other in a myriad of ways both on and off the court.

Meetings are a microcosm of the organizations in which they occur. They reflect an organization’s culture. How do your meetings mirror your leadership style and the culture of the organization? How would you describe your secret sauce?

6.5 No one dominates. I call this 6.5 because sometimes in basketball, when teammates are having an off night, one player needs to step up and take most of the shots as Kevin Durant did in the third game of the finals. But this is the exception, not the rule. Teams usually do not win games with solo efforts as in the case of the Herculean performance of LeBron James, the awesomely talented star of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In a meeting, it can be helpful if one person speaks passionately now and then about what he or she cares about or hopes for the future. However, the key is then to not dominate the conversation but to engage with others to carefully consider what has been put forward.

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