Sports leadership

Mike Brey and the Opposite of Modern Leadership

Every year, the NCAA basketball tournament surprises us. There is a team (or teams) that don’t belong because they were better the year before: their best players graduated, they lost their superstar coach, or they just had a mediocre season. Notre Dame is one of those teams this year – they lost two of their best players from last year’s Elite 8 run, they had some ugly losses to lesser teams, and none of their players received serious award buzz. Despite all this, and at times ugly play, the Irish men are back in the Elite 8 and facing a North Carolina team they have already beaten once this year.

Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post wrote an interesting article this week about the Irish men’s head coach and his more laid-back style. The article’s frame is that Mike Brey now looks like a man who spent an hour too long at happy hour during games, but that frame shows a coach who is laid back and allows his players an unusual level of freedom on the court. He is a contradiction to the media darling coaches, those who always are wearing the best suits and/or who are seen dictating play as much as possible.

This coaching style is in line with a lot of the current business leadership literature preaches. A leader is the person seen as in charge, the rock in the storm, the person to whom people should look for the way forward. In some cases this is appropriate, but too often ego trips grow out of this style. These are the cases you read about in the news, when a coach abuses a player or a team turns on a coach. Or sometimes you don’t read about it, but you wonder why a team underachieves or seems lackluster on the court.

Notre Dame is the opposite.  Even when down in the final minutes of a game, they have incredible poise.  In last night’s game against Wisconsin, they should have lost. The Badgers were clearly the better team, and usually in a game like that the baskets Wisconsin made with less than two minutes left are considered sucker-punches that finish off an opponent. Notre Dame never showed panic, and their three defensive stops to finish the game showed a steel that few teams possess. On the sidelines, we didn’t see Brey freaking out or yelling at every opportunity. Part of that may have been because he pulled a quad, and part of that may have been some generous no-calls from the officials. But that’s also his style – he trusts his players to perform and adopts his leadership to reflect that.

In the post-game interview with Dana Jacobsen, the team gathered around their coach and the game’s MVP Demetrius Jackson, as they have after every game in the tournament. You could not avoid the sense that this team was playing on another level, not one of destiny but rather of playing with house money. Rather than justifying or explaining, they are embracing and that style, that attitude, is a major reason they are still playing. That is the alternate style of leadership Brey brings, and it is refreshing to watch.

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