Decision (West) Point

The basketball team representing the United States in the upcoming FIBA World Cup of Basketball had an unusual day yesterday. Instead of a focused practice with the usual efforts to eliminate outside distractions, they visited West Point, the United States Military Academy.While this team’s success or failure is yet to be determined, how history will speak of its coach is well decided. Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski is the all-time winningest coach in Division I basketball history. In addition to his collegiate coaching exploits, he is 63-1 as a Head Coach for USA Basketball since 2005 which includes Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012. Because of his success, scores of people, many well outside the world of sports, look to Krzyzewski as a source of leadership wisdom. And yesterday afternoon, he gave us a small but important opportunity to learn from that wisdom.

Krzyzewski, a 1969 graduate of West Point and the orchestrator of his team’s visit there, talked live yesterday afternoon with ESPN commentators. He described the morning his players experienced. They ate and visited with cadets. They went to the military graveyard on campus. They heard from the family members of some who are buried there. When asked about his experience that morning, budding NBA superstar Kyrie Irving repeatedly referenced the phrase “selfless service.” As commentators noted what a special day this was for the cadets at West Point, Krzyzewski pointed in the opposite direction, saying, “Everyone says the cadets will never forget this experience. They should realize that we [Team USA] will never forget this experience.”

At one point in Krzyzewski’s sharing, he noted that he had changed his plans for the afternoon at the last minute. It was Krzyzewski’s original plan to hold a serious practice following the morning’s immersion into West Point life. Instead, judging that the morning had impacted his team deeply, he changed his plan to focus the afternoon on bonding through fun. Team USA's practice turned into a series of playful competitions that included a massive game of knockout and a half court shooting contest with the men and women of Army’s basketball teams.

Krzyzewski’s shift in plans for the afternoon was no small thing. This team of NBA players is just now starting to come together. In fact, they aren’t actually a team yet. Four more players will be cut from the current roster before the tournament begins in just 11 days. Unlike 20 years ago, the US can no longer sleep walk its way through such tournaments and expect victory. The rest of the world has massively caught up. Winning this particular tournament is the only way Team USA can avoid playing Olympic qualifying games next summer. Considering the grueling NBA schedule, that is a big carrot for all involved. Even so, Krzyzewski drop kicked his original plans for the afternoon. He said, “I had a practice plan for today. And whenever I coach [the] US team, I have practice plans and…{long pause}…other plans. And you make a read. It was emotional for us today. It wasn’t a day to go attack one another [in practice].”

You might not expect a man of Krzyzewski’s success and experience to change his plans. After all, he was a pretty accomplished leader when drew up those plans. He was familiar with West Point. He understood what they’d be doing for the day. He knew what they were getting into. Yet when the moment arrived, he determined that what his team most needed was something different than his original plan. So he changed the plan, and in doing so, displayed the flexibility and emotional maturity required for successful leadership.

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” comes to us from poet Robert Burns. This line not only inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s classic novella Of Mice and Men, it also invites us to view our finely crafted leadership plans open-handedly. As leaders, we work hard to create our strategies. We invest ourselves in those plans. We think forward and in detail about what will best serve our causes. But, in the midst of those efforts, are we so married to our original thoughts that we miss the opportunities that only reveal themselves in the moment? Are we able to keep our eyes and hearts open enough to see new needs should they arise? Krzyzewski’s example reminds us that the most important plan of all is the plan to lead well. And sometimes that means ditching our plans altogether.

Share Your Thoughts:While leading, when have you been too married to your plans? When have you recognized new needs in the moment and successfully deviated from your well-crafted plans?We'd love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

photo credit: Hellcats provide the cadence via photopin(license)

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