Lessons of March Madness: Don’t Sit on a Lead

Posted 03.13.2009

Marmadness_victory It’s the holiday season for hoops fans in the States as the conference tournaments come to a climax this weekend and folks are getting ready to fill out their NCAA basketball tournament brackets. March Madness begins. If you’ve watched college ball (or just about any other team sport) for any length of time, you’ve seen the following happen. A great team surges to an early lead and then tries to slow down the game to run out the clock. What usually happens? They lose.

Marmadness_defeat In switching from offense to protecting the lead, the team loses their natural rhythm and misses plays on both sides of the ball that they were making earlier in the game. Lately, I’ve been hearing stories from clients of successful executives who do the same thing. It’s the corporate version of sitting on the lead and, in the end, losing the game.

Here’s the scenario. A leader with a strong track record for decisiveness and getting things done is promoted through the ranks until they reach the holy grail – a vice president level position or whatever the executive level equivalent is in their organization. The formerly decisive, get it done leader slows things down, asks for more and more information, micromanages to a fare thee well or maybe even becomes less visible in the organization rather than more.

What is going on? Why would they suddenly do this?

It’s simple. They begin doubting themselves and their judgment once they reach the big dance. The confidence that brought them there is replaced with that little voice inside their head that says, “Hey, you’ve made it this far. This is everything you’ve ever worked for. Don’t blow it. Protect the lead.” And that’s when everyone else – up, down and sideways – in the organization starts saying, “What happened to him or her?”

Book_jokerone How do you keep this from happening to you? Here’s a suggestion from an unlikely source. It comes from Donovan Campbell a former Marine squad leader in Iraq who has written an acclaimed memoir, Joker One. While most organizational leaders are not in the literal life and death situations that Campbell experienced, the lessons he learned as a Marine lieutenant seem to apply at some level. Here’s an excerpt:

“You can’t think of home, you can’t miss your wife, and you can’t wonder how it would feel to take a round through the neck. You can only pretend that you’re already dead and thus free yourself up to focus on three things: 1) finding and killing the enemy, 2) communicating the situation and resulting actions to adjacent units and higher headquarters, and 3) triaging and treating your wounded. If you love your men, you naturally think about number three first, but if you do you’re wrong. The grim logic of combat dictates that numbers one and two take precedence.”

The line that really hits me from Campbell is “You can only pretend that you’re already dead and thus free yourself to focus…” In other words, you have to keep playing offense. You have to keep leading and leaning in. Coming to terms with the idea that your position (whether it’s your executive job or the lead in a game) isn’t a permanent one, can give you the freedom and confidence you need to show up at your best.

What's your take?  What do you do to maintain your leadership presence when the pressure is on?