Naismith’s Pride: Teamwork Spells Success

First basketball team at the University of Kan...

First basketball team at the University of Kansas

Eight United States teams – four men’s and four women’s – of sweaty, baggy-shorted collegiate basketball players will be running up and down a wooden court that is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide trying to claim the winner’s trophy in what’s known as basketball’s Final Four over the next few days.

Basketball, more than any other sport, is the ultimate team experience: nothing else comes close in the way five players must play well together and the lessons for business are endless. Unlike tennis or golf, where the presence of teaming usually invokes an antigen -like response basketball requires that all five players work well together. And unlike soccer or North American football, where a weak player or two can carried (and hidden), players who don’t perform in basketball are as obvious as the naked streaker at a formal wedding.

Basketball in a way is like a bootstrapping start-up like my former colleague Jim Knighton’s company, AvidBiotics , or the virtual team work I do with early stage companies: everybody is important, and everyone must work well together for success to be possible.

So what does this sport show us that applies to business and organizations:

Execution counts: Doing what you’re supposed and how you’re supposed to do is critical to a team’s success. While the sport permits freelance, it only works if others can anticipate and know what you’re doing.

Individual talent is important only within the team framework: The list is long of great individual players who failed to win championships. Michael Jordan, arguably of the most individually talented players in the last 20 years, only won when he got a supporting cast that complemented him. Kobe Bryant , a Michael Jordan wannabe, discovered the value of teamwork the hard way – losing.

Strategy is informed by execution and teamwork: “Well coached” will be a phrase used to describe some teams – particularly if it’s one coached by Michigan State’s Tom Izzo – – and it typically means that the team is able to execute well on a smart strategy. A great strategy – minus execution that is usually derived from good teamwork – is a lousy strategy.

Many a business can take pointers from the one women’s and one men’s teams that will win the whole enchilada. Typically they are the teams that have talent AND heart, teamwork and execution. In an era where everyone wants the smartest people, relying simply on talent – as Malcolm Gladwell might note – without the other two components is a recipe for disaster .

James Naismith would be proud of his invention.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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