What the Golden State Warriors Can Teach Us About Leadership

GSW ChampagneAll hail the Golden State Warriors, Champions of the NBA. The Dubs closed out the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 of  the highest rated NBA Finals since Michael Jordan retired 17 years ago.

Despite a league best 67 wins and the third most wins of any  team in NBA history, many NBA analysts did not pick the Warriors to win the title. They said no  “jump shooting” team had ever won, and the smaller Warriors would be worn down and beaten by bigger, more traditional “low post”, “in the paint” style teams.

Not only did the Warriors prove them wrong, they did something no one is even talking about – they actually won two NBA championships this year.

That’s right, the main club won the NBA title last week, and their development team, the Santa Cruz Warriors, won the NBA “D” League back in April. They too had the best record in their league.

How could a team that hadn’t gone to the Finals in 40 years manage to win two NBA Championships in one season? A team with a rookie head coach, that had 22 losing seasons in a row, and only one All Star player in 17 years?

The answer is Leadership.

Top to bottom, this organization modeled leadership. From ownership to management, to the coaching staff and players, the Warriors displayed excellence in leadership. They lived their values of teamwork, humility, resilience, and self-sacrifice. Along the way they proved that yes, good guys can finish first.

Ownership – led by Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber, the ownership team laid out a vision that everyone – players, coaches and fans – could buy into. They provided the resources, hired the best management and coaches they could, then got out of the way and let their people do their jobs.

Management – G.M. Bob Myers won NBA Executive of the Year for his brilliant recruiting and succession planning. It didn’t hurt that he had NBA Hall of Famer and two time NBA Executive of the Year Gerry West as his Executive Consultant. Bob hired “high character” players that fit the needs and personality of the team.  He drafted 80% of the current starting roster right out of college, and stocked the development team with talent so he continually promotes from within. Most Fortune 500 companies would kill for a recruiting record like this.

Coaching – Joe and Peter made the difficult decision to fire coach Mark Jackson after the 2013-2014 season. In his three years Jackson brought the team back to the playoffs and was popular with his players, but had taken the team as far as he could. Ownership acted decisively and signed Steve Kerr, even though he had never coached in the NBA. Their foresight and wisdom proved out – Steve Kerr earned runner up for the league’s Coach of the Year honor, while winning more games than any rookie coach in NBA history.

Steve surrounded himself with great assistant coaches and did the unthinkable: he listened to his direct reports and gave them credit  for their ideas publicly. Steve made an instant celebrity of 28-year- old video coordinator Nick U’Ren, for suggesting that Andre Iguodala start in place of center Andrew Bogut. Kerr gave U’ren all the credit while Andre went on to win the NBA Finals MVP award.

Players –Yes, they were a talented group and had the deepest bench in the league, mostly because of great moves by management. But their on-floor leader, league MVP Stephen Curry, led by example, with a quiet confidence that earned him the nickname “The Baby-Faced Assassin”. He role-modeled an incredible work ethic, and a humble, “team first” approach. This idea of self-sacrifice for the success of the team quickly spread.

Coach Kerr make a big ask of former All Stars Andre Iguodala and David Lee, the team’s highest paid player . He needed them to step aside as starters and accept lessor roles as bench players, something neither of them had done at any point in their NBA careers. They did so graciously, without the whining we usually get from highly paid stars,  most likely due to the example set by Steph Curry. Both played far fewer minutes in the regular season and their stats suffered – but both were ready when called on in the Finals and made a huge impact for their team.

The Cavaliers’ motto is “All for one and one for all“, but the Warriors were the team to actually demonstrate that motto in the way they played.  Cleveland demonstrated “All for One, and that One is LeBron. And so it came to pass that the team with “The Best Player in the World” was beaten decisively by the world’s best TEAM.

Organization – one reason the Warriors were so successful was the culture created by ownership and management. Most NBA teams have two or three “cliques” amongst the players. Small groups of guys that hang out together. The Warriors have one click – everyone!

Incoming coach Kerr went out of his way to build this spirit by engaging his players personally. When he first got hired, he met with each player individually to share his vision, explain their role, and ask for their buy-in.  But unlike the leaders of most organizations, he didn’t do it by text, email or phone. He didn’t even do it when they were together at team HQ in Oakland. He actually flew to each player’s off-season home, even Andrew Bogut’s in Australia.

Would your leader ever do something like that for you? You’d be lucky if they put their cell phone down long enough to hold eye contact with you as you stand in their office doorway waiting for an invitation to sit…

All in all, the Golden State Warriors are a world class organization with quality leaders and a people-first culture. We can all benefit by introducing their team values and behaviors into our own organizations.


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