What The Warriors Can Teach MBAs

The Golden State Warriors after claiming last year's NBA championship

The Golden State Warriors after claiming last year’s NBA championship

I make no secret about being a Golden State Warriors fan. This is my hometown team, and I am proud to admit that I am not just a bandwagon fan. Sports fan or not, you’ve probably heard about their history-making skill that has led the team into another NBA Championship Final starting Thursday night. You’ll see effusive descriptions about the players’ brilliance – individually and collectively. And there are hundreds of articles about their gamesmanship.

But I haven’t seen too much about their brand of unselfish leadership. And that’s something that all emerging leaders – whether in business school or just applying – can learn from.

Leaders who are playing from strength

Here are the things that jump out, and what students of leadership, at all levels, can learn. Each one of these items are true of the superstars (Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Andre Igoudala), as well as the team as a whole.

* They are masters of their skill

* They work hard, really hard

* They help each other out – all the time

* They don’t showboat (much)

* They play with joy

Each one of those traits can be true of emerging business and organizational leaders. When thinking about demonstrating leadership in a business school application, most prospective students I know feel like they are embarking on a competition as fierce as the NBA playoffs. Most other candidates are already masters of their skill. Let’s assume that you, too, are at this elite level of skill. And I bet you work really, really hard.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a statistic for assists in your day job?

The Warriors have already made basketball history because they play like a team. Teams have taken on enhanced importance in business school and management practices. Look up “teams” at the Harvard Business Review website and you’ll find 4,700 articles. Kellogg’s first essay question begins with the statement, “Leadership and teamwork are integral parts of the Kellogg experience.” Wharton, for example, has pioneered the team-based admissions interview, largely because the “team-based nature is fundamental to Wharton’s identity,” writes Hannah Zheng, WG15 in the blog “Wharton Journal.” Fuqua’s dedication to teamwork is so strong that it defines its culture as Team Fuqua with an underlying culture of supportive ambition.

The Warriors have made basketball so much more fun to watch because of the assist: they’ve taken passing the ball around the perimeter, to a high art. They aren’t focusing on muscling their way to get under the basket – most of them are too small to win at that game. Instead, they play a kind of poetic, unselfish ball, and handily lead the NBA in number of assists per game. Yes, you hear of stars – Stephen Curry is not of this world. And he too is a great passer—especially when there is another player in a better position to score.

Showboating is the opposite of acting with humility

Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of seven books on leadership, describes humility as one of the most important characteristics of great leaders. “They  exhibit humility in their actions and interactions, yet are passionately committed to the success of their enterprises,” he wrote in March 2016 on his website. Despite amazing competitiveness on the court – embodying Berkeley Haas’ defining principle of “confidence without attitude,” the Warriors are no prima donnas.

Off the court, the Warriors act about as humble as a bunch of regular guys. Steph Curry, is almost reserved in his demeanor, and at 6’3”, almost looks like a normal-sized human being. He’s quiet and private and brings his two-year-old daughter to press conferences. Draymond Green, the loudest and most passionate of the team, makes a big noise, but even he is not overly impressed with himself. A lot of that gracious off-court attitude comes down from the top, Coach Steve Kerr. A gracious man, Kerr appears to have an even temper and a wry sense of humor. The dynamics of his organization are so strong that when he was out for back surgery for the first 43 games of the 2015 season, assistant coach Luke Walton oversaw a team that won 39 of them. And typically, Kerr and Walton credit each other for the team’s success.

This is not what we think of when we think of famous basketball players. But the Warriors seem to bring the best out in each other. And that’s leadership.

Working hard and having fun

The biggest leadership trait this team brings to the table is joy. Their fast pace, their small stature, their theatrical shots, make you think they are having the time of their lives. In fact, of the four core values, the first one is joy. (The rest are mindfulness, compassion and competition.) This is a team that has a “silly fine” for team members who do really dumb things. This is a team where Curry laughs with delight when he’s on the bench –and it’s infectious enough to make you laugh too.

That’s the essence of being a true leader– to take it seriously, but not to take yourself too seriously. Oh, they’re competitors, and but boy are they fun to watch. As one sportswriter for ESPN writes, “Joy? Sports aren’t supposed to be about joy. They’re supposed to be about proving yourself through a grueling slog of self-sacrifice. …To the Warriors, though, joy is a weapon, an essential aspect of winning.”

Final lessons

I could write more about learning from failure (see Michael Jordan’s Nike commercial), or about defying expectations (see Steph Curry’s original draft report video – with Drake’s lyrics “know yourself, know your worth”). But I won’t. Watch a game. Enjoy yourself. And then, go out and break some records. The possibilities are endless.

Author Betsy Massar is the founder and CEO of Master Admissions, a MBA admissions firm. A Harvard MBA graduate who has worked in finance on Wall Street (in the ’80s), Asia (in the ’90s), and San Francisco (in the new millennium), she is also a rabid Golden State Warriors fan.

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