May 29

How Stress of the NBA Playoffs Pertains to Our Leadership


The NBA Playoffs are in full swing currently with my favorite Minnesota Timberwolves showing they are not quite prepared to handle the stresses of the Western Conference Finals. They are hanging in against the Dallas Mavericks, but are not rising to the moment, leaders, coaches and supporting cast, when the situation demands it. The Wolves have been ahead in each game, but have not been able to perform in the last 5 minutes of the game.

The leaders of the team, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns have been outplayed and taken out of the action for the most part all series. As I wrote in my book, The Four Fundamental Forces of Leadership, added levels of stress cause employees and leaders (players and coaches) perfom differently than when the stakes are not as high. Those two players are being judged by how they are (or are not) performing in their series against Dallas.

Similarly, the perception of your leadership will be determined from how you act when the stakes are high, not when things are easy. Sometimes, those stress moments come up out of the blue. Sometimes, they are regular. How can you prepare for your best when your best is needed?

Proactively experiment with stress before stress happens

To avoid complacency and cultural breakdowns which get exposed under higher stress, leaders can to test various scenarios to find out what might break when things get tough. Proactively adding stress is like running a lab experiment. You begin with a hypothesis. You run the experiment and analyze the process and results. What you learn informs your next steps.

Here are some ideas about experimenting with proactive stress.

  1. Tighten the windows of successful performance. Instead of standard protocols and measurements, tighten up what success looks like and measure what works and what breaks down.
  2. Gain commitment and alignment before adding stress. Make certain people understand this is an experiment and have them be a part of it.
  3. Be there to serve. Help others venture out of their comfort zomes and hold them accountable to the culture and mission during the process.
  4. Have fun.

Search for new opportunities

As the stress experiment happens, you will see areas of breakage the could indicate not only areas that need shoring up, but also uncover strengths that might indicate growth opportunities.

Involving employees helps define this work as an experiment that will present successes, lessons, mistakes, and creativity. Good communication will allow for open, immediate feedback about where the system is straining or thriving under the added stress, so the organization can make adjustments.

Analyzing the effect of added stress

As a leader, your role is to monitor and support the stress experiment and work with affected groups to make appropriate adjustments. You’ll learn about leader and employee capabilities, discover the ability of processes and technology to support a new work standard, and hear customer feedback on the potential changes.

Pay particular attention to how employees react and perform. These experiments are ways to uncover employee development opportunities: chances to remedy workers’ weak spots. That doesn’t necessarily mean noting mistakes. Look at the whole process and how the culture and people responded. What you learn can help the organization grow stronger.

Within this process, you will also see where there is misalignment in processes, culture, workflows, etc. Stress reveals misalignment. If you can find the misalignments before real stress comes, you can address it and retest.

Organizations with cultures based on love, respect, service, and fun that have practiced adding stress to systems are better equipped to handle stress that comes at them from the outside world. They can react faster and more purposefully than can misaligned, less positive cultures because they stay true to their mission and have the processes they need to collaboratively evolve. Unexpected stress happens. You’ll inevitably find it, whether it’s a supply chain breakdown, a recession, or a pandemic.


basketball, leadership, stress

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