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  • Writer's pictureRussell Lookadoo

March Madness: Teamwork Lessons

Updated: May 10, 2018

Many American’s are fascinated by one of the great sporting events of our time, March Madness, the NCAA Basketball championships. This event is universally appealing due to many factors including its broad geographic impact and the chance for Cinderella, or the underdog to defeat the blue chip established competitors. It is a metaphor for small businesses who dream of knocking off the big business competitors. It is also exciting to watch the event from a teamwork perspective.

Teams from schools of all sizes and all levels of experience are equals at the tip off. The five starters represent the top talent for the team. The bench represents 6-8 other competitors eager to participate. Unlike the business world, the Cinderella schools do not face thousands of players from the other team.

Another unique aspect of the tournament is we get to see the five players up close and personal. We see their enthusiasm, their desire, their triumphs, and yes often their bitter disappointment. We also can observe how well they function as a team. Do they pass well? How high is the assist to shot ratio? How balanced is the scoring? Does one player take the game solely on their shoulders? These are team key performance indicators that often predict success.

One year fans got to observe an unusual event in team dynamics. The highest seeded team, Louisville, was cruising essentially unchallenged to the championship. They were a high performing team. Then the “break heard around the world” occurred. Kevin Ware, a starter for the Cardinals, suffered a horrendous leg break while defending a shot. Suddenly a team that seemed invincible became vulnerable. Ware’s teammates were visibly shaken while the injured student athlete was carried off the floor on a stretcher, Loyal fans were distraught. The team had to regroup, or face defeat. The performing team entered a period of storming.

Teams do not just appear and magically perform; in fact all go through a four step cycle of development. While predicable, as the events of the tournament showed, the steps of development are not always sequential.

  • Step 1: Forming: In sports teams, this occurs during pre-season as members are joining the team. In business this occurs every time there is a new hire, resignation or re-organization. Every team member is getting to know each other, their ability to contribute and what role they will play. They are also gauging each others’ level of commitment and attitude. Often they are focused more on this than the tasks at hand. The forming period usually ends with the first milestone success. Leaders must be very assertive regarding the communication of goals, principles and values, and role definition.

  • Step 2 Storming: This occurs as roles develop. Competition begins as team members vie for position. Sometimes, the storm can be externally triggered as we saw when Ware’s leg break occurred. The roles adopted during the Forming stage come into question. Adopted goals become unrealistic. Team members resist working together. Selfish behaviors surface. Some players get frustrated and opt out. Cliques will form. Leaders are often required to step in, provide focus and clarity, and immediately deal with non-productive behaviors. During the time out, Coach Pitino gathered his team and rallied around their fallen teammate. He gave them a compelling clear goal: get the team to Final Four in Atlanta, Kevin’s home town.

  • Step 3 Norming: The team has survived the storming period. New roles are solidly implemented, They begin to use each others’ ideas, give and receive feedback in a constructive manner, They follow the teams ground rules (values) and trust their teammates. In sports, new players are acclimated into the game without disruption. Often natural informal leaders emerge at this point. Leaders over a team at this stage need to be highly participative and allow the team to self manage. Guidance is still important but the team must be allowed to find its groove. Coach Pitino, recognizing this during the rest of game, did not use any timeouts.

  • Step 4 Performing: This is the where we want our teams to be. Progress is made with speed and efficiency. Team trust is evident and expected. Disagreements occur but are resolved positively and within the team. The team continuously improves and stands on its own with no interference or participation from the leader. When needed, the team approaches the leaders for guidance or resources. During the Final Four, the Cardinals often gathered in huddles without the coach and were clearly having fun. Most importantly, they emerged Champions.

Wining is the ultimate fun. In business, winning is being profitable and making a difference. It is the leader’s responsibility to monitor their team’s evolution and lead accordingly. Knowing where you team is in development, and adapting your leadership style, is the game winning leadership secret.

Russell Lookadoo is the HR Guy for small businesses. His firm, HRchitecture, specializes in helping business leaders accomplish their goals by effectively using their teams. Russell brings over three decades of experience designing Human Resources solutions that achieve business strategies in varied organizations ranging from a small manufacturer to the nation’s second largest bank. Russell holds the Senior Professional in Human Resources designation from the Society of Human Resources Management and earned the Certified Compensation Professional designation from World at Work. Russell attended the University of North Carolina on the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Industrial Relations. Visit his website at

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