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Leadership Lessons From The Miami Heat

Erik Spoelstra with Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Erik Spoelstra in 2011. Photo by Keith Allison.

The Miami Heat ended its 2016-17 season last week when the team fell just short of making the playoffs.

I think this feat deserves hearty congratulations.

If you haven’t been following the Heat’s season, it may seem strange to congratulate a basketball team that didn’t make the playoffs. However, the fact that they made it into contention at all was remarkable.

The Heat started their drive for a postseason berth with merely a 0.03 percent chance of making the playoffs and went on to pull off the biggest in-season turnaround in NBA history by several measures. Had they made it to the playoffs, the Heat would have been the first team since the late 1980s to do so after starting the season as badly as they did. The Heat did, however, become the first team in league history to finish the season with a record of .500 or above after being at least 12 games below .500.

If nothing else, the Heat’s turnaround should ensure that they will sell a few tickets next season, which looked pretty doubtful only a couple of months ago.

The team’s rocky start was, at least partially, a side effect of the loss of what was once known as Miami’s “big three.” First the team lost LeBron James – one of the NBA’s best players, if not arguably the best currently playing the game – back to the Cleveland Cavaliers in free agency at the end of the 2014-15 season. They were then unsuccessful in their attempt to re-sign Dwayne Wade at the end of the following year. And while Chris Bosh is still technically listed on the Heat’s roster, he has been unable to play since February 2016 due to ongoing health concerns; it is currently unclear whether he will ever be able to return to the NBA.

Without its three former stars, the Heat started the season with an abysmal 11-30 record. It then managed to reverse course, ending the season with 41 wins and 41 losses. Many factors contributed to the Heat’s remarkable course-correction, but the one that impressed me most was the leadership demonstrated by Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra.

Riley, the team president, certainly contributed to securing the raw talent necessary to rebuild after the loss of James, Wade and (effectively) Bosh. Yet Spoelstra, the team’s head coach, was even more crucial to the team’s midseason turnaround. Admittedly, I had never been Spoelstra’s biggest fan, so perhaps others were less surprised than I was at his performance this season. But I think that not only other coaches, but anyone who manages others, can learn valuable lessons from his approach.

Leadership is pretty easy when everything is going right. It’s keeping people motivated in the face of adversity that represent the true challenge.

Back when Miami relied on its “big three,” Spoelstra’s coaching did not impress me. In terms of play-calling (or failing to do so), making lineup decisions and substitutions, and knowing when to call timeouts during games, it seemed as if he was not a top-tier coach – or, perhaps, simply that he did not need to be, since he could rely on his all-stars to carry the team to the promised land of the NBA Finals instead. The “big three” did just that for four consecutive years, after all. Spoelstra’s style seemed unstructured, almost passive, mainly focused on getting the ball to the stars and letting them do what they did best.

The comeback he orchestrated this season, which was certainly his most challenging, made me a true believer in Spoelstra’s coaching ability. With no big star to carry the team, Spoelstra seemed to struggle at first with his new roster. But managing to dig a team out of an 11-30 hole requires true leadership, and I tip my hat to Spoelstra for proving me wrong about his coaching acumen. Getting as close to the playoffs as the team did was not only impressive; at the beginning of the season, and even more so midseason, many observers would have said it was impossible.

Whether in sports, politics or business, when a leader loses one or more key players, it becomes essential to quickly motivate the remaining team members to step up. Spoelstra eventually got his team to focus on working as a unit, which proved one of the major keys to the Heat’s success in the season’s second half. Their stars might be gone, but Miami had eight players who averaged double-digit figures in scoring. Their overall defense rating was third in the NBA. Instead of trying to recreate a strategy pinned on one or more superstars, Spoelstra cultivated the skills of the players in front of him.

This strategy shed more light on the abilities of some of the Heat’s players as their coach gave them increasing opportunities to show off their skills. Dion Waiters and James Johnson, especially, made major contributions to the team’s success this season, and it seems likely the Heat will try to retain both as long as they can afford to do so. Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside also demonstrated their ongoing value in the space left by the absences of Wade and Bosh. Maybe most importantly, the players learned to think about winning as a team rather than as individuals.

“We had a lot of tough losses down the stretch and we didn’t know how to win games as a basketball team,” Spoelstra told The Guardian. “We’ve gained the maturity to understand it could be different guys on different nights.”

Spoelstra also stayed focused on winning one game at a time, despite a daunting loss record by midseason. As Johnson observed, “Even though we were losing we were trending.” The team steadily improved, both as individual players and as a unit, and their effort and attention to detail led to an amazing comeback.

When a “rainmaker” leaves a company or organization, remaining team members may fret over how the organization can grow, or even survive, without the former star. A good leader gives his or her people the confidence and opportunity to step up and contribute. He or she helps the team to believe that everyone can play a part in the organization’s ongoing success. When team members are given new authority to act and openings to contribute, their triumphs reinforce their belief that they can do well. And a team may cohere as well or better than before without the outsize ego that often accompanies outsize performance.

Leaders rebuilding from a loss of one or more individuals would do well to follow Spoelstra’s example: Look clearly at the resources you have, not those you are used to relying upon. Make certain that your people know that you believe they can succeed. As Miami demonstrated this season, when you give team members the support and opportunity to meet even major challenges, the results can blow everyone away.

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