Coach Brendan Suhr has led legendary leaders like…Isaiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Dennis Rodman, and many more Hall of Fame NBA players.
For almost 45 years, Suhr’s name has been associated with the greatest coaches and players in the history of basketball. While coaching with the Detroit Piston “bad boys” and the 1992 “Dream Team,” he led leaders at the highest levels of professional sports.
Obviously, Coach Suhr learned a few things while surrounded by talent at this level. However, no one makes it to the elite level of any profession by accident.
Performing at this level puts you in the 1% range of professional basketball players. However, leading others at this level takes an even greater degree of skill. Here are a few comments Coach Suhr made during my recent Unbeatable Podcast interview about leading other leaders at the highest level that stuck with me.
One of the best pieces of advice Coach Suhr heard that prepared him to lead in the NBA was, “Be yourself!” I know it sounds basic, but you can’t fake it at the highest levels of any profession. The people at this level are too talented to be fooled. You must be authentic, or you won’t survive in any discipline or sport at this level.
Some leaders need help with authenticity while stepping into the highest levels of their profession because they lack the confidence that they’re good enough to lead at the highest levels of their work. As a result, they subtly try to replicate the tactics and traits of other talented leaders. This is a recipe for failure. The best leaders know how to show authenticity even in the most stressful situations.
Leadership pundits throw the phrase servant leadership around like beads during a Mardi Gras parade. Most people need to recognize the difficulties that genuine servant leadership requires, especially when trying to lead some of the most talented and arrogant players on the planet.
A great deal of personality and ego management accompanies leading that great in any industry. Coach Suhr expertly navigated the complex waters of egos and talent while still getting the best performance out of his players. When asked how he could increase players’ performance at this level, he quoted a simple mantra… “Lead people, not players.”
People are complex. People have issues. People’s personal lives change daily. Learning to increase performance at the highest levels of the NBA required Coach Suhr to start focusing on the individual person rather than the plays for the next game. The high-stress, intense-pressure job of coaching requires a passionate commitment to humble servant leadership to focus on the person more than the player and yield excellent results in any walk of life, not just on an NBA court.
Being authentic at the highest levels takes work. Humbly serving people is even more difficult. However, the third is the most challenging principle of leading others at the highest levels. When you think honestly about Coach Suhr’s first two leadership principles, this one will not come as a shock.
Leading with love is rare in any profession.
Anyone who has seen the game of basketball has watched coaches or players lose control and berate or belittle their team. Love is not the first word thrown around with championship basketball teams. However, love is the secret sauce that forges top individual players into a great team.
Coach Suhr’s simple approach was to treat his team like family. This concept simplifies the most challenging leadership assignments. However, don’t be mistaken- although leading with love is simple- it’s usually not the easy path. Talking down to a player or throw your position around to get your way on the court is typically easier.
When facing difficulties in any industry, dealing with problematic performance, or handling strife, treating people like family will force a leader to find the best solution to any set of problems.