Leading by Following the Raptors

by Brian Brittain on June 18, 2019


To observe the evolution of the game of basketball and see which teams perform best now, are a good lesson for any organization and its leaders. Essentially they have evolved from groups of highly talented individuals to true teams. The game of “iso” (individual hero players taking over games in the last five minutes) has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

In the game of business, the hero CEO or senior leader, who makes all the key decisions has also gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Look at the Raptor’s and the Warriors. These two teams in the finals exemplify high performance teaming. They trust each other, seem to always have each other’s backs, and try to make each other free for the best shot. The assist count has become as important as the basket count. Why has it evolved this way? My hypothesis is that in order to win, with better and better individual players, you need to leverage that talent through teaming. It is a different way to play, a different way to succeed. With this, the whole team is greater than the sum of the individual talents.

I see winning organizations as not being about the best talent, but how the best talent is able to integrate with the existing mix of talent. We see basketball teams that experience “tissue rejection” when they have brought in another star, but we also see teams that have been able to successfully integrate individual heroes into one team. Somehow they have been able to convince these players to be less selfish and realize as a team we are all better together than any one talent can be individually.

To paraphrase Naomi Titleman Colla in her article The Big 6ix: Work Lessons from the Raptors printed in the Globe and Mail on June 10th.

1. A Common Purpose unites all Stakeholders: Create extraordinary moments for our fans and each other

  • All organizations need to define and align everybody around their own clear and meaningful purpose that answers the question, “why do we exist?”
  • Common purpose is also a useful reference point in order to resolve inevitable conflict or competing goals.

2. Integrate and Assimilate Disruptive Talent: Think of how well the Raptors have assimilated Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol. Or how well Kevin Durant has been integrated into the Warriors world.

  • How careful are you to preserve your culture and empower a new talent that you have brought on board? How often do we hear, “it really didn’t work out.” What might you have done before and after hiring to increase the likelihood of taking a good talent, turning her and the team into a better collective capability, as a result?
  • When bringing in new talent, how well do you manage the tension between desired disruption and change, while maintaining your core values?

3. Implement Agile Teaming: The Raptors, as all teams do, have a “starting line-up” with clear roles and accountabilities, but are able to inject different talent and combinations into that line-up depending on differing circumstances.

  • Can your organization quickly put together cross-unit sub-teams to deal with new situations, challenges or opportunities so that proposed recommendations have the trust and likely sanctioning of the senior team because we are all committed to the same common purpose?

4. Anyone can be your Fiercest Competitor: Who would have bet on the Raptors being in the finals at the beginning of this year? Look at the reaction to the huge trade risks they took? Would it tank the team altogether?

  • The evolution of the basketball team has shown that competition can come from where it is least expected. Think of the Raptors as a “start-up” with a hunger to win. Is your leadership paying attention to the faint signals coming from non-traditional or unexpected competition?

5. Operate with a “growth mindset” when evaluating talent: Fred VanFleet was not drafted. He was really short, kind of looked like Drake’s little brother. People doubted him, but somebody saw a development opportunity there. He is now a secret weapon for the Raptors.

  • Leaders should be focused on developing other leaders, mostly from within. Play the long game with talent. A better way than risking the cost of bringing in a pedigree talent and hoping they will stay. Do you know your emerging secret weapons?

6. Redefine Leadership: The Raptors leadership focused more on creating the conditions to welcome talent, integrate it, and help with its desire to stay and thrive and less on having to be the prime motivators of excellence.

  • Today’s smart leadership focuses on creating the cultural conditions for talent to emerge, develop, perform and thrive over time, enabling all to influence each other in the desired direction. Senior leaders create a coalition of leadership empowered to influence each other. David Spangler once said, “Leadership should come from whoever has clarity in the moment.”

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