This year’s race for the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the National Basketball Association (NBA) contains some insight and lessons for higher education administrators. The ascension and performance of the individual players were significantly enhanced by the personnel that they were surrounded by, the system that they were playing in, and the role or position that they occupied.
There are attributes of each of the players’ situations that can be gleaned and applied to management and leadership decisions at colleges and universities to avoid bureaucratic dysfunction and to help to maximize institutional capacity. Let us look at some of the contenders for this year’s NBA MVP:
- Kawhi Leonard — The greatest strength of Leonard’s game is his defense and the fact that he does all of the little things to help his team win. This has been a core feature of the Spurs organization for a generation. One of the reasons why these characteristics have persisted is because traditionally unheralded things like playing defense are recognized and celebrated.
There may be Leonard-type of individuals at your institution who are not flashy, but do all of the little things to make your organization succeed. What makes Leonard a superstar is that he has combined his willingness to do the little things with elite skill and athleticism, therefore making him one of the top “two-way” players in the league.
A team member in your organization who possesses great talent can go to the next level when the less glamorous things that he or she does are recognized and encouraged.
- James Harden — Harden is a classic case of what a change in role and location can do for a player or employee. Harden was formally a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Harden was not even a member of the starting lineup with the Thunder. He came off the bench and played a “sixth man” role.
He provided an offensive spark off the bench, but the true depth of his talent was hidden. As a result, he was significantly undervalued. Thus, he was traded to the Houston Rockets for a player who was not nearly as talented. In Houston, he was a starter and immediately played the leading role on the team. He has been amongst the league leaders in points and assists over the last few seasons and is having an exceptional season this year.
The change in role and location put Harden in a position to put his true talent and ability on display. He is now able to have the ball in his hands on almost every possession where he can make plays for himself and others. This, along with Rockets management putting complementary pieces around him, has allowed the team to overachieve.
Is there someone in your organization who may be out of place in his or her current location? Does the role that they are currently in restrict their talent? Might they be better suited in another area or fulfilling tasks that are more closely aligned with their natural skill set? If so, loosen the restrictions on that individual, give him or her the ball, and let them make plays to help your institution overachieve. This may entail putting them in a different environment or just shifting the role that they occupy in the present department. The ability to be flexible is key in both scenarios.
- Russell Westbrook — Westbrook is having an individual record-setting year and will probably be the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple double. The departure of former MVP Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder has given Westbrook utter and complete freedom to exercise his jaw-dropping athleticism and skill. He has free reign to do what he pleases on the court without fear of punishment from his coach or teammates.
The downside of this unrestrained freedom is that he is second in the NBA in turnovers and has taken hundreds more shot attempts than any other player in the league. Other superstar players may be reluctant to come and play with him because of a perceived self-centeredness. The lesson here for administrators is that unrestricted freedom can produce incredible creativity and production, but can also cause valuable team members to leave if the lack of structure causes them to underachieve or be marginalized.
Individual persons may put up record-setting numbers in this kind of unstructured environment, but teams and organizations seldom reach the top or win championships like that unless the top players are very unselfish and can handle the freedom without making too many mistakes.
- Stephen Curry — Though Curry is not a key player in this year’s MVP race, he is the two-time reigning MVP and thus merits discussion. Curry’s incredible success in the NBA can be greatly attributed to his placement in a system that gives him an unrestricted green light in his area of expertise. Curry is arguably the greatest long-distance shooter in the history of basketball. He can shoot with exceptionally high accuracy off the dribble or off the pass and has the kind of ball handling and passing skills that create a lethal combination.
The key is that he operates in a system that allows him to push fully the limits of his ability. Curry would not be able to reach the heights that he has if he were in a restricted “Princeton” style offense. The lesson for organizations is that, when everyone is treated like a cog in a machine, then those who possess elite talent in certain areas are never able to put it to use. Their elite ability is wasted and the organization does not operate at an optimal level as a result. It is important for top-level management to identify people with elite skill sets and give them space and freedom to push the limits of their ability in the area of their strength.
- LeBron James — “King James” could arguably be named the MVP in the NBA every year. He possesses top-level size, strength, and speed with incredible passing and scoring skills. He is a true leader who makes everyone around him better. The key to winning championships with James is to put a supporting cast around him that complements his ability. He is the kind of player around an entire organization is built.
It may be necessary to coach James differently from everyone else on the team because he is almost like another coach on the floor. Other players just need to be ready because James will give them the ball in the best position for them to excel.
The lesson for organizations is that, when you are fortunate enough to land a LeBron James-like talent, then you need to recognize that and act accordingly. These individuals still need coaching and direction, but they should be given enough autonomy, discretion and trust to be able to make decisions that put organizations in the best position to succeed.
The worst thing that you can do when you have a LeBron James-like superstar is to micromanage them and try to control their every move. They need the space and freedom to be able to create magic for your organization. Provide the appropriate supporting cast, step back and let that individual carry your team to the Promised Land.
Institutions and organizations can avoid a lot of bureaucratic dysfunction by taking the time to maximize the individual talents of each team member to push the collective forward. This requires a loosening of the rigid traditional hierarchy and for managers to embrace and to not be threatened by the ability of others. The zero-sum game mentality where, if you win, then I must lose, paralyzes organizations and results in a massive amount of wasted talent. Higher education institutions should learn from the positive attributes of the NBA MVP contenders and put people in the best positions for their talent to flourish.
Dr. Marcus Bright is a political commentator and the executive director of Education for a Better America. He also serves as an adjunct professor of public administration and political science at Lynn University.