Three Leadership Lessons That Frank Martin And The Gamecocks Taught Us

As an alumnus of South Carolina, I took a special interest in the run to the Final Four achieved by Frank Martin and the Gamecocks.  Of course, there were a number of great underdog story-lines that captured hearts across the US – a program so steeped in mediocrity that it hasn’t won a tournament game in over 40 years; a coach who is a self-made leader, working his way up from high school JV basketball coach to NCAA Coach of the Year candidate; a 7th seed who barely made the tournament with a dismal 3-6 record in their last nine games, to ultimately, making a historic  run to the Final Four.

As a leadership coach, I’m also naturally fascinated by what led to his team’s success.  How is it that a program that showed no signs of life heading into March Madness created such amazing results?

Here are some lessons we can learn about leadership and effective team results from Coach Martin and the Gamecocks:

Vision + Plan = Success

From the beginning, Coach Martin asked his players to trust him.  He felt strongly that, given the talent and experience assembled, they could create a successful team.  Coach Martin integrated a plan featuring a stifling defense, which isn’t nearly as sexy as a “run and gun” style, and the players bought in.  The players adopted the vision and executed the plan, forgoing individual heroics for the betterment of the team.  During the NCAA’s, coach Martin said the following, “We got to have guys that believe in our mission, that are going to believe in what we want to do.  Once they believe, then we can teach them the technique.  It all starts with our mindset.  We have got guys that are completely bought into what we do.”

In organizations, leaders who communicate a clear vision and pathway to reach goals are much more likely to get “buy-in” and commitment from their employees.  Of course, working hard is an important ingredient.  And, leaders who share a bigger vision, even with lower level employees, foster a greater sense of purpose, develop a greater sense of unity, and are more effective at creating team cohesiveness.

Connection Through Vulnerability and Transparency

Frank Martin is a self-described open book.  He is not afraid to share his struggles from his past and his shortcomings.  By sharing his journey, he becomes more accessible and human to his players, and he becomes a trusted confidant.  While Frank Martin’s “tough love” approach may not be a great fit in many organizations, his willingness to practice transparency with his players makes it safe for others to make, and learn from, their mistakes.

Leaders that operate in transparency and authenticity are more respected, generate more meaningful conversation and open dialog, and create more employee loyalty.  Perhaps most importantly, when leaders operate authentically and with transparency, it opens up their team to take more responsible risks and creative problem solving.

Celebrate the Wins

If you followed March Madness, no doubt you’ve seen video of Frank Martin (and other coaches) getting doused with water in a Gamecock dance huddle after each win.  Coach Martin wasn’t afraid of getting his expensive suit wet; rather, he shared in the expression of sheer joy with his team, building team connection and camaraderie along the way.

While we may not be winning nationally televised games, how many of us truly celebrate the accomplishments of our teams and ourselves?

Nothing is more deflating than acknowledging milestones or achievements with a “business as usual” mindset.  Bring in a cake, take your team for a celebration lunch, acknowledge the successful effort as a group, and most importantly, integrate fun.  Employee engagement, effort, and retention are often determined, as a base level, from how enjoyable employees find their work experience.

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