This team proves that leadership matters. Through great leadership from their owner, coach, players, and staff, the San Antonio Spurs are able to stay true to themselves, conduct themselves in an ethical way and still achieve sustainable success. What could your organization achieve if it was able to create winning teams like the Spurs from the top to the bottom of the organization? To be an effective leader you must learn how to create AND maintain a winning team.
Here are 10 things we can learn from the Spurs about building and maintaining a winning team:
Getting the right people on your team
One of the greatest strengths the Spurs have is their ability to put the right combination of skills on the court.
In order to get the right people on your team, you must first be very clear on the following:
1. The values you want for the team (they must be in alignment with the values of the organization)
2. The purpose the team serves to the organization (must be in alignment with the purpose of the
3. The overall skills the team must possess to have what it takes to achieve sustainable success
Once you have defined the values, purpose, and skills, proactively seek new talent that fits the bill to join your team (Beeson, 2010). When choosing your team, do not focus simply on the technical skills. Focus on the people skills and their ability to be resilient and optimist.
Know your people
Get to know every single member of your team. As a leader, it is important to recognize that each member of your team has emotional and professional needs that influence his/her performance. You can gain this understanding by answering the following:
1. What drives them?
2. What are their goals?
3. What are their pet peeves?
4. What are their strengths?
5. What are their weaknesses?
6. What motivates them?
7. How do they communicate?
8. What do they expect of you as a leader?
9. What do they need from YOU to perform at their best?
The answers to these questions will help you align each individual’s goals/desires with those of the team and the organization. It will help you communicate with them effectively and provide them with what they need to succeed, including motivation and inspiration.
Leadership is a relationship between the leader and follower (employee). For any relationship to be effective, both people must benefit from it-there must be a give and take. As a leader you benefit from a great team member who contributes to the team. As a member of the team, he/she must get benefits for being on the team and from allowing you and trusting you to lead them. The benefits team members are looking for depend on the individual (this is why it is important to get to know each member of your team). Some people want the recognition; some people want to know they are contributors; some want to be behind the scenes but appreciated by their team. No one size fits all.
Everyone must take responsibility
As a leader you take most of the responsibility for the team. However, you are not the only one who must be responsible. When you allow your team to be responsible for the role they play on the team, for their decisions and contributions, you empower them. In my work with leaders, I see that failure to take and give responsibility has caused them a world of trouble; but once they learn this piece, their teams become incredibly productive. At a press interview before the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Coach Popovich gave us great insight on how he helps his players take responsibility by allowing them to solve their own problems. Coach Popovich appeals to the unique competitiveness and character of each player and tells them that he cannot make every decision for them. He is very big on his team communicating with each other at all times. Popovich said, “I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group… Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do?...figure it out.’ And I’ll get up and walk away. Because it’s true. There’s nothing else I can do for them…they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain” (Freeman, 2014). (See full interview HERE)
Know when to use the “right” emotion to motivate and inspire
Who said emotions do not play a role at work? Emotions play a crucial role in everything we do and in every relationship we have. Leaders who understand this master their emotions and use them effectively, enabling their teams to accomplish incredible things. Take Coach Popovich for example. He is very selective about what emotion to display depending on the player, the situation, and the outcome he desires. He has been seen emotionally charged against specific players, but also has been seen evoking an emotional appeal to his players. He knows when to challenge a player and when to praise a player for his efforts. Most importantly, he knows when and how to have fun with his team. Knowing when to use the “right” emotions to motivate and inspire takes incredible interpersonal skills, as well as knowing each individual in your team (I cannot emphasize this point enough).
Promote the team not just a few individuals
The Spurs do not believe that one, two, or three super stars will bring them success. They understand that it is a team effort. Each player is valuable in their own right. This mentality allows them to play selfless basketball where each player thinks, “I got a shot, but you have a better shot, so here you go”. It is about the team succeeding together, not just one individual getting all the credit, fame, and glory. This would not be possible without the top leadership advocacy to promote the team over one, two, or three individuals. Leadership that rewards only the individual creates an “everyone for themselves” team mentality. Leadership that rewards the team creates a “one for all and all for one” mentality as the Spurs have been able to create. This does not imply that we should never celebrate the individual. There are times when it is necessary and important for the success of the team. The important point here is not to make the mistake to put certain individuals on a pedestal and underestimate the power of team effort. Great leaders understand that no matter how skilled and gifted an individual is, it does not compare to the collective skills and gifts of the team. Therefore, everyone on the team is valuable.
Build a team that is resilient
The Spurs had a devastating loss at last years’ finals when they lost to the Heat after being so close to winning. They could have said, “Well, that was it, we lost our chance to win,” but instead they said, “Ok, let’s go back to the drawing board. Let’s work on our weaknesses, work harder, and let’s get it next year.” The reality is that every person, every team, every organization, will have to face challenges and obstacles on their way to achieving their goals. And sometimes, you have to realize that good is not good enough-that to achieve your goals, you must morph into a different team. A leader should always ask him/herself: Who do I need to be to help my team achieve our goals?; What type of team do we need to become to achieve our goals? Then, work hard to become that leader, that team. If you build resilience in yourself and your team members, you will be able to persevere, find a way to create opportunities, and achieve more than you thought possible.
Develop great leadership throughout the organization
The Spurs have great leaders, not just at the top of the organization, but throughout the organization. It is important for you to develop great leaders in your team because you cannot be there 24/7. You cannot make every decision and, to be an effective leader, you must delegate. If you delegate to great leaders, great decisions will be made. If you want an effective organization, develop effective leaders.
The Spurs have an incredible roster with players from countries like France, Brazil, and Argentina. This provides them with a competitive advantage by providing the team with a diverse set of skills. Diversity allows the team to think outside the box and learn from each other. Embracing diversity must come from the leader. You can help your team embrace diversity by helping them see the many things they have in common with each other and to respect the differences that exist. Coach Popovich said, “I think it’s just a respect for letting them know you understand they’re from another place…We all grew up differently” (Cacciola, 2014).
The more success that we achieve, the more pressures we, and others, put on ourselves to continue to achieve. This can turn into the reason for our failure if we succumb to the pressures and lose sight of what we are here to do. In his book True North, Bill George (2007) explains that true north is the internal compass that guides leaders and helps them stay true to themselves no matter what comes their way, so they don’t lose sight and start making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. Do not succumb to the external pressures; stay true to what is right and work hard. The Spurs are proof that teams do not have to compromise their values to be a winning team.
Lead with humility and promote it in your team
While it is not a popular belief in business, possibly due to the misconceptions about humility, the ability for individuals to have humility offers a strategic value to teams as well as organizations by providing members with a realistic perspective of themselves, the team, and the environment (Vera & Rodriguez-Lopez, 2004). In A Better Way to Think about Business, Robert Solomon (1999) defines humility as ‘‘a realistic assessment of one’s own contribution and the recognition of the contribution of others, along with luck and good fortune that made one’s own success possible.’’
If you take a look at the Spurs’ coach and players, they exhibit humility. They possess a down to earth perspective of themselves and of the events and relationships in their lives. They have the capability to evaluate success, failure, work, and life without exaggeration. Furthermore, they are able to distinguish the delicate line between such characteristics as healthy self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-assessment, and those of over-confidence, narcissism, and stubbornness. The Spurs are the perfect example that a person can be humble and competitive or humble and ambitious at the same time. Jim Collins describes ‘‘Level 5’’ leaders as those with a paradoxical combination of humility and fierce resolve. He states that ‘‘Level 5’’ leaders, rather than lacking ego or self-interest, are indeed ambitious—but with an ambition that is, above all, for the firm and its greatness rather than for self.
When you do the right things as a leader; look out for your team members, help them achieve their career goals, and enable consistent success; people want to stay on the team and you effortlessly start attracting other great talent. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be part of a winning team. The Spurs are a perfect example. As Bill Simmons (2014) stated, “The Duncan-Manu-Parker trio took less money to stay with the Spurs, playing for 25 to 30 percent less than their market value…which allowed San Antonio to re-sign Tiago Splitter and afford Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, Danny Green and Matt Bonner…Their best four players earned $32.3 million combined last season … nearly $8 million less than Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, and only $1.85 million more than Kobe Bryant made by himself”. Often times we think that money will make our talent stay but talented people are intrinsically driven who value a winning team that they can draw purpose from and can count on.
Cacciola, S. (2014). The United Nations of the hardwood. Retrieved from
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York, NY: Harper Business.
Freeman, E. (2014). Spurs coach Gregg Popovich explains how he gets players to buy into his system.
Retrieved from http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nba-ball-dont-lie/spurs-coach-gregg-popovich-
George, B. (2007). True north: Discover your authentic leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Simmons, B. (2014). 24 lingering questions from the NBA finals. Retrieved from
Solomon, R. C. (1999), A Better Way to Think about Business. New York, NY: Oxford University
Vera, D. & Rodriguez-Lopez, A. (2004). Humility as a source of competitive advantage. Organizational
Dynamics, 33(4), 393-408.