Back in 2010 when LeBron James joined NBA All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat, basketball fans assumed that the championship was theirs. Many of them also assumed that the head coach, Erik Spoelstra, was just a figurehead, rolling out the balls for practice and letting LeBron and his friends make all the decisions. That’s what happens when you’re one of the youngest head coaches in sports, and the combined salary of your players exceeds the GDP of most small countries. The Heat did, in fact, win two NBA titles with Erik Spoelstra at the helm, and many didn’t give him the credit that he deserved at the time.
Fast forward seven years, and Erik Spoelstra is still the coach of the Heat, one of the longest tenured coaches in the NBA. This year may have been his most impressive season yet. After losing all three of those All-stars and garnering the pity and low expectations of his peers, Spoelstra guided his team to a remarkable .500 record, missing the playoffs by a single game, and earning him Coach of the Year honors. It seems that the league and fans are finally appreciating what he brings to the table as a leader and coach. And a big part of that is his passion for teamwork, especially among leaders.
After playing some professional basketball in Europe, at age 24 he joined the Miami team to edit and analyze game film. So, there is little doubt that he understands the X’s and O’s of the game. As natural as it would be to assume that Spoelstra’s appreciation for teamwork begins on the court, I was pleasantly surprised to learn from him that he had read and implemented the principles in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. More importantly, he believes that teamwork among coaches is his first focus and that without it, teamwork among players isn’t going to happen.
“I first bought The Five Dysfunctions of a Team back in 2009 when we were talking about acquiring LeBron, but I applied it to the coaches and staff because I knew that it would be a challenge to keep us all aligned with so many potential distractions.” Now, when a coach buys a book about teamwork, one might assume that his primary purpose is to apply it to his players. That’s what surprised me most about Erik—that he was thinking about coaches; the people responsible for leading the team. Ironically, many corporate executives don’t think that way, allowing politics and division to thrive on their executive teams while preaching collaboration and teamwork to employees at large.
Erik was reminded of all this last summer as he headed into this past season. He and his top assistant, Dan Craig, had been close for many years, but in 2016 they separated temporarily as Craig took over coaching responsibilities for the Miami developmental league team (the equivalent of a minor league team in baseball). When Craig returned last summer to rejoin Eric’s staff in Miami, their relationship had to be reset.
They were still good friends and had good intentions, but something was off. They both knew it, but couldn’t identify it. So, they focused on rebuilding trust, which is the first step in teamwork in any organization and at any level. They looked at their Myers-Briggs types to better understand each other and what might be going on, and there it was. “We were very similar, but with a few differences. And once we understood where we overlapped and where we differed, we were able to reconnect and build an even better relationship, coaching staff and team.”
I’ve always said that teamwork is not a virtue, but rather a strategic choice. Too many leaders give teamwork lip service and then focus on technical skills, talent and tactics. Not Erik Spoelstra. He is first and foremost a leader of leaders, and knows that his knowledge of basketball will amount to little if there is separation or division among his first team—his coaches. That will never find its way onto a stat sheet or a post-game analysis, but Erik knows that it’s the first step in making teamwork a reality among employees, whether they are software developers, middle school teachers or professional basketball players.
The lesson for all leaders is simple: talent matters but doesn’t surpass teamwork. And teamwork is not a principle that leaders can simply insert into an organization. It has to be embraced, lived, modeled at the highest level, and then, and only then, can it be credibly promoted from the top.