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How Stronger Relationships Lead to Greater Success

In the 1997 NBA draft it was clear who the number one pick would be. Tim Duncan, the standout college player from Wake Forest had all the intangibles physically and was a model citizen off the court. Teams like the Boston Celtics lost at an impressively terrible rate to land him. Yet improbably the San Antonio Spurs, who had an injury plagued season for their star David Robinson, tumbled from their normal winning ways and ended up with the top pick of the draft.

It would have been easy to pick Duncan based on talent alone. Spurs coach Greg Popovich, however, doesn’t believe in leading a team that way. Instead, Popovich flew down to visit with Duncan and his family in his hometown of Christiansted, located on the coast of the US Virgin Islands. They swam together, ate together, and spent more time talking about life than basketball for most of the visit.[1] Coach Pop founded a relationship with Duncan that would lead to a father-son-like connection. With that relationship also came a historically impressive win-ratio and string of championships for nearly two decades as a tandem together. Duncan’s talent certainly helped, but some would argue it was their relationship that might have carried them further.

Connect First, Lead Second

Who was your favorite coach or teacher growing up? Was it because they were cool? Was it because they knew all the answers? No, more often than not it was because they took the time to get to know you. They asked you questions about what interested you and what life was like outside of school or the playing field. They invested time and energy in your wellbeing. They gave you a ride home and listened to your story. And as they got to know you they imparted small bits of wisdom when you were ready to hear them. But not before they had first built trust with you. Your relationship led to your connection and ultimately your success.

Here are a few ways to connect first as a leader, coach and parent:

Know the Whole Story: When Tom Izzo first took over the men’s basketball program at Michigan State University, his first star recruit was a freshman named Antonio Smith. Smith grew up in Flint, Michigan, a city known for tough neighborhoods and gang violence (and later for its string of star basketball athletes). Following a loss in which Smith seemed to give up and show poor body language throughout the game, Izzo invited him out for a burger. As they drove around together Smith opened up about the struggles he faced at home and the hardships he still endured. The two formed a bond that eventually brought the MSU program to new heights for years to come.[2]

Push and Care: When you think of a leader, especially a coach, there are probably two schools of thought - one says that the best way to get a response is to push those around you to be their best. The other is focused on what we are discussing today - relationships or Leading with Love. The truth is, people want both. My friend, Author and Character Coach for a DII College Basketball program, Taylor Edge asked over 100 athletes to describe what they most wanted from their coach: the top two most common responses were a coach that pushed them and also a coach who cared about them.[3] It’s important to remember that love and discipline often go hand in hand(Hebrews 12:6).

Be There When it’s Hard: Perhaps the most important way to grow trust and a strong bond is when things are hardest. When Duncan’s father became seriously ill during his rookie year, Coach Pop made sure to check on him consistently and just to be there for him. Words may not be necessary but go to the hurt and show you care.

Tough and Nurturing: Showing your employees, students and team members that you care doesn’t mean that you’re soft. Coach Pop and Izzo certainly have moments when they are hard on their players. Yet the relationships they have built first allow for the trust necessary to enforce accountability checks on their players. Love without truth is soft. Truth without love is harsh. Find the balance and build the relationship first.

Start building relationships with your own team today. It is the foundation you need to reach shared championships and long-term success together.

[1] Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

[2] Seth Davis, Getting to Us: How Great Coaches Make Great Teams


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