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Basketball and Organizational Excellence

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
April 10, 2015

The recent National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament was noted for decreasing office productivity, as employees spent time discussing which team was best and betting on who would win. A former colleague of mine even took his annual vacation leave during the tournament so that he could stay home and watch March Madness.

But there are important organizational lessons in the tournament. It goes without saying that it takes talent to reach the tournament, especially the Final Four, just as it takes talent for any organization to excel. Finding (and keeping) talent is the coach’s/manager’s job and the best teams, whether on the basketball court or in offices, must have “deep talent.” When a player or employee is “out of the game” there are others to step up and take the leadership role. While high-performing basketball stars, like LeBron James, may be critical to a team, most teams thrive and win because there are many “stars.” A successful manager or coach understands this and recruits for this depth.

Paddock aprilAn effective coach or manager also understands the game and the kind of talent that needs to be recruited. Dick Bennett, former head basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, once noted that he was successful because he understood the kind of students at the schools and the kind of athletic divisions in which the teams competed. He recruited and coached young men for the kind of game that they would play.

Similarly, successful managers understand their regulatory, political and economic environments and recruit and lead their employees for that situation. For example, the professional and personal skills needed by a village clerk/treasurer may differ in a variety of ways from those needed by a state treasurer, or the budget manager of a major state department.

For both basketball teams and organizations, success depends on mastering the fundamentals.

What are the guiding principles?

What kind of team/organization are we, or do we aspire to be?

Bo Ryan, head basketball coach for Wisconsin, noted that, regardless of rule changes, “It [is] still basketball….We still taught the same fundamentals, the same strategies.”  For those in government, when budgets are cut, departments are reorganized and legislative priorities change, it is still public administration with the same fundamentals and basic strategies for completing work successfully.

NCAA teams have what has been characterized as “grit.” In a recent Washington Post column, Sally Jenkins wrote, “If you detect something profound in the NCAA tournament, there is no need to apologize, because you are right according to renowned neurobiologist Angela Lee Duckworth, (who) studies traits that predict achievement…. [H]er special focus is on the quality known as “grit”…the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals…. [I]t’s a more important factor in success than talent, IQ or privilege.” Athletes, she writes, are excellent students because they are equipped with “grit, growth mindsets and the habits of deliberate practice.” If you’re interested in assessing your own grit you can access Duckworth’s survey at sasupenn.qualtrics.com.

A review of public and private organizations that have experienced long-term success also have this kind of grit. Organizations that not only survived the Great Recession but emerged as stronger and more focused have “grit.”

Cities like Las Vegas, Nevada and Phoenix, Arizona, which experienced mass foreclosures and the loss of tax base, continued to provide not only basic services like policing and transportation but also parks and libraries. These cities are now experiencing a new kind of growth and have “grit” and growth mindsets. Managers who have learned to adapt to new technologies, the new ways of communicating and new kinds of employees have “grit” and a habit of deliberate practice. Employees in a division of motor vehicles who learn Spanish and adapt to new licensing regulations and continue to greet each customer with a smile have “grit.”

Teams that compete in the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are all winners. Though all but one team will win the tournament, all others have nevertheless demonstrated a season of coached talent, mastered fundamentals and grit. Likewise, a public organization – a police department, a transportation agency or a social welfare unit – may have a single (even significant) failure. Yet, over time they demonstrate that they are winners. They continue to focus on the mission and on doing that mission as well as possible. As managers, we all should be cheering for that mastery and that grit in our employees and in ourselves.


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who currently lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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