Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Leadership Lessons from Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau

The roster that a sports head coach must lead is that of a small business, but the stakes are that of a middle-market company - literally in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  As with any business, he has to make sure his team performs at a high level, game-in and game-out, and weathers, if not thrives in, the pressures to win.   But he must do so under ubiquitous media coverage and fierce fan expectations, and feedback, positive or negative, comes in real-time in the advent of Twitter.

That's the context in which Chicago Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau operates.  He is an NBA lifer, as one sportscaster called him, meaning he has spent most of his career coaching in the big league.  I hadn't heard of him, until he became the Head Coach of the Bulls prior to the 2010-2011 season.  This was the first time he assumed such a high post, and he demonstrated his leadership prowess by winning Coach of the Year honors.  In that first season.  

This article is about drawing leadership lessons from Coach Thibs, as his players have affectionately addressed him.  It has two parts:  First is a walk-through of what I surmise to be his critical success factors, and second is a step-back approach that I call extracting the algorithms of leadership.  Together these parts ought to give you, as leaders, a good bearing on lessons you might take away.

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Part One

His unflinching demeanor

Thibodeau would hardly ever win any media award for looks or personality.  It's rare to see him smile, as if the air around him had 'serious' etched on it, and he's positively droll-sounding when addressing reporters.  Moderately heavy-set, he wouldn't impress anyone as GQ or Esquire cover material.

But the thing is, he probably doesn't care for any of this.

Instead, he is focused, steady and unflinching under pressure and in the face of adversity.  His refrain must be boring, if not frustrating, to those reporters:  identifying where the team has to improve, emphasizing defense mostly, and preparing for the next game.

Nothing flashy, little that's controversial.      

His studious preparations

From what we have heard, Thibodeau puts in long hours in the office studying teams.  There is no questioning his work ethics, and this is drilled into his players, both by observable example and through instruction and practice.  In fact, Joakim Noah joked after a game one time that his coach was great but didn't understand the "rest thing."

But to be successful in a complicated, fast-paced, ever dynamic sport, the head coach has no option other than to exercise great dedication to strategizing and planning during all those hours that neither media figures nor diehard fans see.  We know very little, if anything, about his personal life, but conventional workplace wisdom would say that he lacks work-life balance.

Ah, he is no conventional coach, though.  

Certain coaches believe in the sports adage:  You're only as good as the next game.  Thibodeau values previous games as case studies, but he never dwells on them or rests on his laurels.  At the same time, he eschews predictions, and avoids getting himself or the team ahead of themselves.  It's a fact that a team cannot win multiple games simultaneously, so indeed their preparations and their play are about that next game.

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His player management

We don't know what goes in meetings and practices behind closed doors.  But judging from players' remarks and performance, we can tell that Thibodeau has struck up very good relationships with them.  In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins found that putting people first, that is, before mission, vision and strategy, was a hallmark of great leadership and the underpinning of great results.  So he may be dispassionate and unwavering vis-a-vis his players, but he clearly garners a lot of buy-in, respect and admiration, even affection and humor, ironically enough.

I imagine the nature and specifics of his players' talent are things he has studied diligently as well.  He works at deploying what certain players are good at, in game situations that call for these strengths, such as defending, scoring, rebounding and play-making.  He then knows how to lift their talent to a higher level by challenging them hard and expecting nothing less than their best.      

For instance, Derrick Rose is an unquestioned superstar. But with Thibodeau at the helm, good players like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah became first-time All Stars as well.  Also, Carlos Boozer and Nate Robinson won Players of the Week honors this year.  Moreover, in his first year as Head Coach, he had his team securing the best record in the NBA, and took the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals.  What's even more telling of his ability to reap the best from his players was in his second year (2011-2012):  It was the NBA best record, once again, but this time with a slew of injuries that took Rose and others off the court for several games at a time.

Further, I sense that some head coaches cower, in relation to certain players, mainly the superstar with a headstrong personality.  Not Thibodeau.  His players know that on-court performance matters quite a lot, and so does good sportsmanship that transcends play.  He is not afraid to confront his players and to bench them, when necessary.  Jim Collins draws on this analogy:  Great leaders make sure they have the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus.  They are engaging and supportive of their staff, but are brass-tacks tough on them about producing results.

This is Thibodeau.     

His team emphasis

There is the occasional post on Facebook, meant to inspire, that there is no "I" in team.  I look askance at that and say, Team has most definitely a lot of "I"s.  Of course, Thibodeau believes in team, but he does so without falsifying the reality of individuals that make up that team and without invoking team-team-team platitudes, either.

How does he do it?

By focusing on strategy, speaking to play, and giving straight feedback.  His specialty is defense, and even the best opponents have difficulty scoring against the Bulls.  Unlike many coaches, though, he doesn't rely on double-teaming or full-court presses to lock down the opponent.  Instead, it's a help-defense strategy.  The man-to-man defender must steer the opposing player in a certain direction, as best as possible, and if that opposing player gets past, other defenders rotate to provide a second- and a third-line of defense to halt the dribble penetration or impede an outlet pass.

The Bulls offense sets are often predictable, and this is a main reason why they often have difficulty scoring.  But even in this case, Thibodeau emphasizes moving the ball among the players, quickly and effectively, so that they find the player with the best, high-percentage shot.  Opponents know this, of course, and will impede ball movement, and get the Bulls to play one-on-one.  This is simply not their strength, but periodically, as I've mentioned, individual players rise up to the challenge and play 'beastly' great games.

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His unspoken quandaries

Thibodeau understands the business and politics of professional basketball, as a whole, and of the Chicago Bulls, in particular.  Those successful first two years as Head Coach sidled into a really tough third year for him and the team.  For one, the front office rid the team of several of pivotal support players.  With  defensive stalwarts like Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer moving on to other teams, plus with Taj Gibson lost for several games due to injury, for example, the Bulls have looked positively hapless and listless on defense.

But at no time has Thibodeau begrudged these roster moves.

Besides Gibson, he has lost several other players for assorted maladies, and Derrick Rose himself hasn't played a single game this season after he tore his ACL a year ago.  Yet, Thibodeau's refrain is, We have more than enough to win.  No question, he has his team firmly in the playoff picture.  But his team has played inconsistently, and suffered ugly blowout losses.  I imagine he must know that hard work, team play, and energy can bring a team only so far, if talent is flat-out insufficient.

So the truth is, He simply doesn't have enough to win, not at the level of the last two years.  Case in point:  The Bulls' winning percentages in Thibodeau's first two years as Head Coach were .756 and .758, again both tops in the NBA.  To date, it's a mediocre .537.  Yet, we understand his need to keep thinking and speaking positively, because there is no option otherwise for him and his players but to believe in this:  that with whoever they have, they can win the game.

Part Two

Just as it's nonsense to be like Steve Jobs, it's fruitless to mimic all the foregoing to be like Tom Thibodeau.  Extracting the algorithm of leadership means that it matters what lessons you learn as much as how you learn and apply them.  Leaders, and their organizations, sometimes fall into the trap of adopting wholesale the findings of bench marking studies and engaging eagerly but blindly in so-called best practices.      

Your leadership algorithm

The algorithm here is to think critically, first, about your purpose, priorities or aims.  Second, it's about knowing what it will take to serve that purpose.  This means, in large measure, assessing your knowledge, capabilities, and personality, as thoroughly and accurately as possible.  Third, it's adopting the leadership lessons that best bridge you to your purpose, and adapting the practices that best suit the situations you face.

There is no colleague, consultant or guru that can script this for you, much as you may admire any of them.  To this end, let's map out these general scenarios:
  1. By and large, after thinking things through critically, you determine that what Thibodeau does fits your purpose, personality, and situation.
  2. There may be a mix-and-match process, where you adopt what are in fact helpful for you and dispense with the rest.
  3. Alternatively, much of the foregoing does not make sense for your purpose at all, and it's more of a wholesale dismissal of these points.

In a way, a leadership algorithm is the practical underpinning of success, that is, it's the engine that truly makes your "car" run; and the transcendence of practicality, that is, the mind that abstracts and conceives that car.

Again, I emphasize thinking critically about things.  Thibodeau is just a leadership case study, and as such it's a platform for learning and not a blueprint for success.

You extract what is helpful for your purpose, dispense with the rest, then move on.  You extract what is helpful from other key people, organizations or situations.  So, at the end of the day, you have fashioned a constellation of lessons into an algorithm that works uniquely for you.

My references

I am a sports fanatic, and love to read reports, view videos, and watch games.  So, for this article, I drew on a range of references.  The following are main ones:

Thibs should be proud of his players' All-Star selections
Effort alone doesn't cut it for the Bulls

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!  Also, if you'd like a PDF of this article, please e-mail me at

Ron Villejo, PhD

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