CCL President & CEO John R. Ryan explores why leaders should be like basketball superstar Stephen Curry.
Even people who don’t like basketball say they love to watch Stephen Curry.
The Golden State Warriors superstar is the most dynamic player of his generation. He regularly hits shots from twice the typical distance. Defenders literally trip over their own feet trying to guard him. He fires passes across the court at angles so daring that his own teammates sometimes don’t see them coming.
My twin brother and I played decent basketball in high school and college. There were times when our teammates didn’t see our passes coming either, but it wasn’t because we had Curry’s skills. It’s consoling at least to think that even Curry himself didn’t always have them.
Ignored by all the major college programs, which deemed him too small and un-athletic, Curry developed a relentless work ethic. Even today, he logs countless hours perfecting his shot from every spot on the floor. He puts himself through grueling drills to improve his vision on the court. He scrutinizes and practices every aspect of his dribbling.
“You either put the work in and reap the benefits of what you’re doing, or you try to take shortcuts and think you’re going to be all right. But it doesn’t work that way,” Curry has said. “The guys who put in the most reps are usually the ones who are most successful.”
Curry, in other words, has mastered the fundamentals.
Leaders who want to develop as leaders must do the same.
And a new book by 3 of my esteemed colleagues spells out exactly what the fundamentals of leadership are.
In Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching, Peter Scisco, Elaine Biech, and George Hallenbeck make the case for the “Fundamental 4″ — Communication, Influence, Learning Agility, and Self-Awareness — as the foundation of all successful leadership.
There are of course many other leadership skills, from change implementation and conflict resolution to resilience and strategic planning. Indeed, their book looks in depth at more than 50 skills — a stark reminder that no matter how good we think we are as leaders, there are always areas where we can improve!
But we should focus daily on these 4:
1. Communication, which is the art of speaking, writing, and listening clearly and consistently. As the Compass book notes, communicating well is the greatest opportunity and challenge for any leader. Strong communicators know their audiences. When they walk in a room, they know who is there and how much they know about the issue at hand. With that knowledge, it’s possible to tailor the message and delivery.
Getting exposure to other points of view before we walk in that room is also crucial because of the fresh thinking and insights we are likely to acquire. It’s why every leader needs to be a Chief Listening Officer. It’s also why we need to grade ourselves on how often we use the words “I” or “my” in our interactions. If you stop and take stock, you might be shocked at how ingrained the habit is at work and at home. “We” and “us” are far more likely to inspire trust, collaboration, and results.
2. Influence is the ability to persuade others to gain their cooperation and commitment. If effective communication is the greatest challenge for leaders, understanding and motivating others to take action can be our greatest asset, especially as organizations become more complex and decentralized. The first thing skilled influencers always do is consider others’ situations. Identifying potential ways to help is a key step for finding common ground, as is building a coalition of supporters to extend the credibility and appeal of your proposal.
Just as communicators know the ins and outs of their audience, excellent influencers vary their tactics based on who they are approaching. There are 3 primary kinds of appeals — those based on logic, on emotion, and on a sense of cooperation — and different people respond to different ones. How those appeals are delivered also matters. Some people prefer email, others face-to-face meetings. Some like data, others stories. Go with the approach they like; not the one that’s most comfortable for you. You will like the results.
3. Learning Agility is the knack for seeking out diverse experiences and applying the lessons learned to new challenges. It’s grounded in the principle that experience is the best teacher — and we need to be deliberate and curious about seeking new experiences and knowledge. That means periodically reinventing our routines, even if they’re working. If we’re doing things the way we’ve always done them, we’re probably missing out on opportunities to do them better.
But collecting new experiences is just half the equation; we also need to make sense of this new information that will most likely open up new possibilities. That can be hard to do with the constant temptation to check the box and move on to the next thing.
We can keep ourselves in a learning mode by blocking time on our calendars to reflect on experiences. It’s also helpful to get frank feedback from others on how we performed in a new situation. From this, we ultimately gain a stronger sense of how we like to learn (through talking or thinking or journaling, for example), making us even more agile in the future.
4. Self-Awareness comes from using reflection and feedback to gain insight into our strengths and address our development needs. We are the worst judges of our own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s vitally important to have women and men whom we trust offer insights on what we’re doing well and what we can do better. For quite a while, I had a sign taped to a chair in my conference room that said “Gift chair.” This reminded me that every time someone sat in that chair across the table and said something I didn’t want to hear, they were performing an important service. Feedback truly is a gift.
At the same time, we can also coach ourselves. Pay attention to how others respond to your actions. Assess how you respond in times of stress. Do you maintain balance? Do you lash out? Taking a good hard look at ourselves, particularly as we move into new roles that require new behaviors, can vaccinate us against derailment.
Mastering the Fundamental 4 takes hard work and constant practice. It usually isn’t any more exciting than watching Stephen Curry shoot a thousand three-pointers or practice dribbling in an empty gym. But, as Curry knows as well as anyone, when we’re in the spotlight and everyone’s expecting results, having great fundamentals makes all the difference.