It's Time to Pass the Ball

If you want your team to succeed, you need to develop others to "take the last shot" when the game is on the line

One of the lessons on teamwork that I enjoy teaching is the Law of the Catalyst, which states, "Winning teams have players who make things happen." Look at any highly successful team—business, sports, volunteer, or otherwise—and you'll find people who perform at a seemingly superhuman level to help the team succeed. To such people, losing is simply unacceptable, and they find a way to win, no matter what.

When crunch time comes, catalysts want to take control. They are the athletes who want the ball in their hands when the clock is winding down and the game is on the line. They are the salespeople who want to make the critical pitch to the client for the make-or-break deal. They are the lawyers who want to make the closing arguments when the fate of their client hangs in the balance.

When I talk about this idea to a room full of leaders, they immediately connect with it. Why? Because most good leaders possess this catalytic quality. They refuse to lose, and they pull out victories when the odds are overwhelmingly against them.

Teaching Others to Do the Same

This summer I spoke to a group of entrepreneurs who were gathered for an exclusive leadership conference held at an NFL training facility. At the end of my session, a sharp businessperson asked a question related to this issue. "I always feel like nobody else can deliver the way I can," he said. "When you're a leader who wants the ball in his hands at crunch time, how do you know when to pass the ball to another leader to develop him or her?"

It's a good question, one that may determine whether a leader can go to the next level, because good leadership is about developing other leaders who can deliver, not just delivering yourself. It's my observation that there are three different kinds of leaders when it comes to passing the ball.

Leaders Who Never Pass the Ball: Some people never consider passing the ball to another player, which would give someone else a chance to win the game or clinch the contract. They've always been the go-to person, and they want to keep it that way because it feeds their egos or because they're afraid to let go of control.

Leaders Who Botch the Pass and Lose: Other leaders, like the one who asked the question, recognize the value of developing other leaders and team members by passing the ball. However, they think of passing the ball as a single event, not a long-term development process, so they pass the ball poorly. They pick the wrong player, choose the wrong time, or neglect to properly develop and empower the person. As a result, they lose. And many vow never to pass the ball again.

Leaders Who Pass the Ball Well and Win: The final group consists of leaders who understand the process well, develop leaders who can score during crunch time, and create wins for the entire team.

Continuing the basketball analogy, here's how you can prepare a player to accept the pass when everything is on the line in your business:

1. Find a player with potential. The entire process begins with talent. You cannot turn a below-average person into the corporate equivalent of Michael Jordan. The skills need to be inherent in the person. Look for people who are intuitive, passionate, influential, creative, and responsible.

2. Begin with layups. Most young, hungry leaders picture themselves winning the game by making a three-point shot from the parking lot under huge pressure. Don't let them start there. Begin with layups, the easiest shot to make. Simpler tasks not only instill confidence, they also show you that someone has the character, responsibility, and focus to deliver under ordinary circumstances.

3. Pass the ball before the half-time buzzer. You want to ease players with potential into pressure situations. The best way to do that is to give them responsibility in situations that feel critical to them but still give you the ability to recover if they make mistakes.

4. Pass the ball at the end of noncritical games. Once they're ready, let them have the ball when their actions really do count. Just don't make it a situation that will make or break the organization. Give them minor projects, smaller accounts, etc.

5. Give them the ball when it really counts. When you think they're ready, give them the ball when it really counts. But even this should be done in a progression: when the game is on the line, when the season is on the line, when the championship is on the line.

Why go to all this trouble? Isn't it easier to retain control? Yes, in the short run it is. But not in the long run. If you learn to pass the ball to another leader, it frees you up to take your own leadership to a higher level. As you help a potential leader make the transition from practice player to game player to go-to player, you will be undergoing your own transition to coach and developer who has the whole organization in mind, not just the current game or season.

As a businessperson, winning a few games or a season isn't enough. You want to build the sports equivalent of a dynasty, a team that keeps performing at the highest possible level and keeps winning.

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