What the NBA’s Return to Play Can Teach Us About Leadership


The NBA is back! (At least for now.)
To get to this point, the league had to pull off a minor miracle: Bring a basketball league—players, coaches, operations—into an isolated bubble to keep COVID at bay. And so far, it has largely worked.

The NBA did the hard work. They developed a robust, extensive plan. They took their time, delayed their season until they had as many kinks in the plan worked out, and did not compromise on items they knew mattered. They adapted as they saw what worked.

The NBA bubble handbook is 113 pages with rules and guidelines for every scenario the league’s leaders and player’s union could think of.

  • Want to play golf in the bubble? Great, leave the caddie at home.
  • Showering? Not at practice or game facilities, only at your hotel.
  • Testing? Lots and regularly.
  • Masks? Check.
  • Guests? Nope. Not until August 30th, if everything is going well and guests go through testing and quarantine entry procedure.
  • What if someone tests positive? Isolated housing is ready.
  • What if you leave the bubble or violate the rules? Minimum 10-day quarantine with lots of testing and robust consequences for rule violations.
  • There’s even an anonymous call-in line to report on others!

Now, look around to other leagues and teams. The MLB is floundering with 8 teams impacted by COVID, delayed games left and right. One player is out for the season with COVID-related myocarditis, a serious inflammation of the heart muscle. College campuses are littered with COVID before they’ve even opened. Over a dozen college football players have been diagnosed with myocarditis. Meanwhile the NCAA, conferences, and the like all kick the can down the road, waiting for someone else to lead. Schools are opening with “plans” that are more a front to look good on the news and make us feel better than to actually do anything.

All of these organizations are trying to copy the end result (i.e., play sports!) without doing the hard work that the NBA did. They might feel like they are doing the work, because they are checking off the very basics: developing plans that include frequent testing and implementing social distancing and mask-wearing. But they are preparing for a marathon and feeling good about it, when the NBA quickly realized they needed to prepare for the seemingly never-ending and unique Barkley Ultramarathon, a grueling race like none other, with rules that change on the fly, and which nearly goes on forever.
The NBA matched their response with the actual demands they are facing. The NBA planned for reality. Other sports are planning for the most optimistic view, and adding in hope and prayers that nothing will go wrong. The NBA didn’t merely hope that a bunch of 20-somethings behaved in the bubble, they did everything they could to make sure of it. They addressed reality. Others did, and continue, to not. (Think: colleges ignoring the reality of kids going to parties, or the expectation that six-year-olds in school somehow will wear masks, socially distance, and not wipe their snot everywhere as six-year olds do…)

This isn’t a lesson on COVID management, it’s a lesson on leadership.

Regardless of what we face, it’s very easy to fool ourselves into thinking we are prepared, that we’ve done everything we can. When in reality, we’ve built a plan with duct tape. It might resemble the item we hope for, it might have the same shape, but the moment it’s put under serious stress, it will fall apart. That’s what happens when our preparation doesn’t match with the actual demands of the event or performance. Not our optimistic hope of the demands, but as close as we can get to what we will face.

We all need to be more like the NBA right now, and during the inevitable future crises too. Play the long game. Do the hard work. Don’t fool ourselves with hope, but face reality. Face the real enemy, not a made up one.

— Steve

(For related material see: The Science and Art of Leading and Leadership Principles for Sport and Life)

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