The hardest thing to do as an organization is to sustain elite success.
Winning is hard, and when you win at an elite level, so many things have to go right. It’s not as simple as being the best team, or having the most talent, because so many things that are beyond your control play a factor in the results. You do the best you can to control what you can control and prepare your team for the moment. But the other guys are trying to win too, and doing everything they can to get to the top just like you. Elite success is uncommon, and sustaining it year after year is extremely difficult. It takes a great combination of talent, determination, commitment and approach.
So when you find consistent success, it’s really important that you embrace it. Enjoy it, study it and continue to work at it. Recognize how hard it is and figure out what it is about your culture that helps perpetuate that success. Study it to determine what you can still do better and figure out what adjustments you can make to improve. But understand that elite success over a long period of time is uncommon, so you have to appreciate it and pay it the attention it deserves.
In team sports we don’t do this enough, and the reason is fairly simple. We have a tournament at the end of the year. Every sport we have in this country finishes with playoffs or a championship tournament. So we don’t reward long-term high level success. The big reward for our teams is given to those who get it done in the playoffs, who win championships, even though that doesn’t necessarily identify the best team.
When a wild-card team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl, or a #6 seed wins a conference tournament to get to the NCAAs, we still celebrate them as champions. Even though all they had to do was get hot and play well at the right time. They didn’t have to sustain success. I have to think this has an impact on the leadership decisions we make. We don’t reward the single hardest thing to do in sports – to sustain elite success over a long period of time.
I thought about this when the Raptors fired Dwayne Casey. All he did was help turn the Raptors from an also-ran to a legitimate contender in the NBA Playoffs. They won their division every year. They won the Eastern Conference regular season this year with 59 wins. He helped developed two less-heralded players in Demar Derozan and Kyle Lowry into all-stars. And he got fired for one reason, because he couldn’t do someone that no one in basketball has been able to do in the last 8 years in the Eastern Conference – beat the best player in the world. The best player in the world, and probably to ever pick up a basketball, who hasn’t been beaten in an Eastern Conference playoff series in 8 years, did what he does every year in the playoffs, and it costs Dwayne Casey his job. Enjoy that NBA Coach of the Year Trophy, Dwayne.
I get it, championships matter, NCAA Tournaments matter, it’s all about the ring. In sports we reward success in small sample sizes over long-term success. That’s what championships are – although the NBA with 7-game series that last from spring until summer does the best job of rewarding the best teams. But evaluating small samples sizes over the long-term results is not a healthy way to lead an organization. Sustained results over time are the best way to determine the health of your organization.
You have to think about how much the system we use affects our leadership approach. Obviously at the ownership/GM/AD level it can affect their decisions on who they want in charge. Look at guys like Dwayne Casey, David Blatt, Scott Cross at UT-Arlington, Rick Barnes at Texas or Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. The sports world is littered with coaches who have been let go who have demonstrated consistent, high-level success but didn’t find their way to the Holy Grail at the end of the season. Given all of the attention (and money) given to our championship teams these days, the pressure is magnified. It’s easy to look past consistent success when you are focused on the parade.
As a leader it’s so important to get past the noise and understand the best indicators of the health of your organization. I know how bad it feels to lose in the conference championship game (done it twice) or to have a disappointing loss early in the post-season. But if I’m coaching a #6 seed who gets hot and wins the conference tournament to get to the dance I’ve got a lot more to work on then if I’m coaching the #1 seed and we lose in the semi-final. You simply can’t fake long-term success. You can absolutely hide some flaws, get a little lucky and draw the right match-ups in a post-season tournament. I wish we celebrated regular season success a lot more than we do (hello, English Premier League), but that’s not the structure we have.
Billy Beane had a great quote in the book “Moneyball” about his Oakland A’s when he said “My sh*t don’t work in the playoffs.” His point was that he built his teams to be successful over the long haul, a season in baseball that lasts 6 months. He recognized that the post-season was a bit of a crapshoot, and that anything could happen in a small sample of games. Unfortunately, as a coach, it isn’t always that easy.
So we don’t reward the most difficult kind of success to achieve the way we should, and the challenge is to not let it change our ability to lead effectively. Get rid of that great or awful feeling you have right after your season ends before you start evaluating what you need to do to get better. Are you coaching your team effectively throughout the season, or is your mentality that only the post-season really matters? Do you spend too much time thinking about what your team is going to look like at the end of the year, rather than staying locked in to what you need to do every day? It’s easy to dismiss a bad day or a bad week during the regular season by telling yourself it’s the playoffs that really count – but if you do that, are you addressing the problems you need or just making yourself feel better? As coaches we are in an interesting spot – we will likely get fired or rewarded based on the success in the post-season, but that might not be the most effective way to run a consistent winning program.
I’m not saying that winning championships or getting to the NCAA Tournament isn’t important, because it is. I’m just saying it’s not the best indicator of the overall health of your organization. Evaluate the process and results you get with your team over time, not in a small sample situation. Coach your team for the long haul and don’t just try and catch lightening in a bottle late in the year. Sustained, consistent success is still the best way to prepare yourself for the post-season, and it’s the hardest thing to do in sports. Don’t let a few negative results in small sample sizes change your approach.