Nine words that help the NBA build better leaders

If you want to talk about an organization that supports top talent and strong values, the NBA is an obvious choice these days. From being leaders in their approach to coronavirus protocols (even though those protocols aren’t always convenient or easy), to supporting players in their expressions of protest (no matter what form those expressions take), the NBA is setting themselves apart. And they’re not just setting themselves apart on the court, either. That integrity extends to their corporate offices, too.

I had the privilege of chatting recently with my old friend Eric Hutcherson, formerly Chief Human Resources Officer of the NBA, for my new podcast, The Indispensables. When I talk about indispensable, go-to people, people who are values-driven, who live their integrity, get things done, and who others want to be powerful because of how they use their power—I’m thinking of people like Eric. He has always had this incredible sense of “true north” that has defined his role as a leader.


I asked Eric about this “true north” sense, and how he has used his integrity and values to build himself as a leader and build the NBA as an organization. As he put it, “We look at our players as an example of how we look at ourselves. When you look at our players and how elite they are at what they do, we draft off of that to understand better how we can run our organization.” He pointed to nine words that make up the NBA calling: compete with intensity, lead with integrity, and inspire play.


Compete with intensity

When you think about one of the best players in the NBA today, who comes to mind? Most likely that person is LeBron James, someone who scores 25 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists in a game. He is the kind of elite talent others look to for inspiration: “How can I be more like LeBron?”

The answer to that question is not to sit back, look at your excellent performance, and say, “Wow that was a really good game I played!” LeBron James is a player who goes right back into the gym and asks, “How can I be even better?”

Imagine how much better you would be at your job if you adopted that kind of continuous improvement mindset. Rather than looking around at others and measuring your success by the quality of your teammates or how much better you are than someone else, you instead said, “I want to better today, because yesterday I was awesome.” And imagine if the entire organization were striving to be better than yesterday. How good would that organization be?


Eric Hutcherson


Lead with integrity

As Eric put it, there is no continuum of integrity. You either lead with it, or you don’t. You either show it, or you don’t. It’s not good integrity day Tuesday and bad integrity day Thursday. And leaders should be leading with their integrity first.

If you want to stand out as an indispensable leader, you have to be very clear about what your value set is. Your decisions have to follow that value set very closely. People are watching to see what you do and don’t do. They hear what you say and don’t say. They see what you write about and don’t write about.

More and more, generations of today (and indeed, people of all generations) come and go from organizations based on the values of the company. Leaders are the emblems of those values and the reinforcements of those values. People look to their employer and their leader to say, “What is north? What do we believe? What do we stand for?” Too many leaders struggle to have a clear point of view they can stand behind. But that point of view not only lifts others up and empowers them to do their own work with integrity, it often becomes an attraction mechanism for top talent.


Inspire play

The NBA, of course, is a basketball league, but inspiring play isn’t just about getting basketballs into the hands of potential fans (though that is certainly a part of it). Eric has seen one of his responsibilities at the NBA as “creating an environment where it’s joyful.”

Everyone is better at what they do when they’re joyful at it. That’s not just about liking a job, loving a job, or even finding “meaning” at a job. In Eric’s words, it’s about being able to get up every day and say, “I can’t wait to get [to work] because I know there’s a big challenge around the corner and I’m equipped and ready to go tackle it.”

Leaders and managers are the individuals responsible for equipping direct reports with the guidance, direction, and support they need to do great work. It’s not enough to simply be an “I’m here if you need me” type of leader. You must support others proactively by offering regular, ongoing feedback and high-structure, high-substance communication.


Hear the rest of Eric’s advice on how to become an indispensable, go-to leader on The Indispensables:
Apple Podcasts
Google Podcasts

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