Leadership Lessons from John Calipari

I just finished watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 on John Calipari. After I finished crying – I do during all 30 for 30’s and so do you, don’t lie – I understood and recognized a great leadership lesson. Leadership is about helping your people get to their next level. They are not there to make you better or to make you look good. They are not there for your ego or to win you a championship or get you promoted. They are there to move to their next level. There are many opinions on the one and done culture of college sports before they proceed to the paid professional organization for their sport; I love it, but many hate it. They say the focus should be on finishing their degree and education, not on money. But the point of these young men and women going to college is to be a professional athlete that is the goal. If the athlete is drafted early a degree in Political Science will not make them better at their sport.

So how can we translate this to all organizations? The easiest way is to put the needs of the people ahead of or at least equal to that of the organization’s needs or goals. The leader’s needs should come after both the organization and your people. John Calipari embraced the players that only wanted to do one year in college and then go to the NBA. There are many examples, but the point is that he has put the needs of the individuals on par with the needs of the organization. He knew there would always be great players that wanted only to do one year of college so he wouldn’t be short of great talent. He created a culture and atmosphere where players could be honest with their intentions, and he could take advantage of their short time in his organization because he knew he couldn’t take four years to develop each player. He only had one year to develop each player in specific ways that would compliment each other. This has been a recipe for success.

The key to this is to recognize that the next level is for them. We often think everyone has the same goal or desires as we do. Many people in the manufacturing business have no desire to stay in that business and move up the ranks. Many want to open their own business or change fields altogether. So as leaders we need to find out what they consider their next level and help them get to that point. It seems counterintuitive to find ways to help people leave your organization, especially the excellent ones, but it builds a culture that shows you care more for your people than you do for yourself or the organization’s profits.

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Take Care of Your People

Taking care of your people is such common phrase in the workplace. Managers and leaders use it often when they are describing managers and what they should be doing.   There is only one problem, many managers, supervisors, and leaders have no idea what it means to take care of you people. The most common technique people employ to attempt this feat is only to give people what they want. Although listening to your people’s wishes and wants is vital to a manager, only doing what they want will not improve the organization or the morale of its members. Let’s clarify what taking care of your people and how to do it.

Taking care of your people means making sure they have what they need to their job to the best of their abilities. What they need are physical things, like staplers or trucks, or psychological things like encouragement and praise. They also need standards and a supervisor willing to hold them to the standard and encourage them to exceed it. People hate working for a bad organization. It is like playing for a losing team. Nobody is happy when the team is always losing!

In my experience, I have found most managers only focus on one or two of these aspects. They usually understand the need for the physical tools their employees need but fail to realize employees don’t need sleep pods in their workspace to be happy or any other number of incentives managers use to improve morale and performance. Please don’t misunderstand, many of these incentives are great and can help, but if the foundation of the organization is not strong, morale and performance of the organization will be poor, these things will only provide a temporary boost. They are a Band-Aid for problems.

First, a leader needs to know that you achieve a high functioning organization with high morale by making sure employees know how to do their job and the manager holds them to high standards. Second, they need to know the manager expects all staff to contribute to the goals equally, or in their own way that has been discussed with the supervisor. Third, the leader needs to ensure there is fun in the workplace. So often fun is seen as a waste of time. If your people don’t have a good time at work, they will soon lose the desire to come to work. Find ways to have fun. Lastly, reinforce the behaviors you wish to encourage the type of culture you want.

My final point is about momentum. If you are on a losing team with low morale and poor performers, but you are not in a position to hire or fire, don’t be afraid to start in one area and focus on it intensely until it is right. Once those things start to fall in place, you will be able to use the momentum to make other changes and improvements. If you implement the fun things too soon, you will lose when you start focusing on the harder work standards. Build a solid foundation on the core tasks and then move out from there.

What Makes a Great Leader?

Depending on whom you ask there are an infinite amount of answers to what makes a great leader, here is my take.

Deciding to be a leader. By far the most important thing about being a leader is deciding, you are going to be a leader. We all have to start at some point. And when we choose to be a leader some will have natural abilities that may exceed our own, but if you don’t decide to be a leader, especially if you are in a leadership or management role, you will be poor at it. Leadership is not something the majority can do naturally. I am not a natural leader. I have worked hard to learn and deliberately apply the techniques as long as they are congruent with who I am as a person. And even going so far to change the detracting things about who I am to be better in a leadership role.

Understanding who you are, self-awareness. You could also say this is about being your genuine self and a genuine leader. The hard part about this is if you don’t know who you are and what you strive to be, you will emulate those leaders around you. Many times this can work, but an equal amount of times you will try to emulate a behavior that is not true to who you are, and it will come off as forced and counterfeit. I won’t go into what this will do to you as a leader other than to say, you will lose trust and your days as a leader will be limited if you continue down this road.

Take time to know who you are. Many resources on the Internet will help tell you about yourself if you can’t do it by analyzing yourself. One mistake most of us make when taking these personality and leadership surveys it to answer the scenario how we want to handle it or how we think we should. I can be difficult to answer honestly, but if you do you can find out much about who you are and the things you do well so you can work on them and do them phenomenally!

Self-Education. You can take many courses about being a leader, but they won’t get you to where you need to be. Trust me, I teach leadership all the time, and most people are in the class hoping the information will naturally absorb into them and they will apply the lessons automatically. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. There needs to be deliberate action and effort to learn and apply leadership lessons. There are great books; not only about leadership but also about everything you want to be in life. Even just about appreciating life. Appreciating life is why we strive to be great leaders; to make those we lead and ourselves lead happy and fulfilling lives.