Bo Ryan provides lessons in leadership

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:16 pm

A sports fan, I am not. So why was this otherwise buttoned up intellectual screaming (and at times uncharacteristically swearing) while watching the Badgers win Saturday’s battle against Arizona?

Because I love Coach Bo Ryan’s leadership, and my spirit is awakened by what his system represents. In a culture that increasingly celebrates individual excellence, Bo’s business model is centered on teamwork as its competitive advantage – unselfish, disciplined, focused and motivated by a deeper purpose.

Bo wants to make an enduring, positive difference in the lives of young men. I challenge anyone to identify a corporate or political leader as gifted.

Ryan, interviewed minutes after his team’s victory, had just achieved a lifelong goal he shared with his recently deceased dad – mentor, role model and source of hope after heartbreaking NCAA losses. Yet the first thing Bo did was to thank his team because “they did the work. They won it.” His heart spoke the truth – he serves these men.

And the young men follow him, as we do leaders who care about our well-being. Players automatically go to the bench when they make a mistake – a system Bo demands. They play selflessly because a team victory, not a higher NBA draft number, is at stake. The only way to beat them, according to commentator and basketball great Charles Barkley, is to “force them to play as individuals” because individually they are not as talented as other players reaching the Final Four (Frank Kaminsky being the exception).

At the level of play the NCAA Tournament demands, motivation creates the extra points needed for victory. This Badger team was motivated to give Bo a Final Four opportunity, a commitment team leaders made after observing how vulnerable their coach was at his father’s funeral. At other times, they are motivated to serve Wisconsin and its fans. The sea of red is part of the ecosystem that contributes to the team’s success.

Were Bo a typical business manager, I wonder if he’d have been tempted to change the game plan when times got tough. Too many CEOs cut essential people, chase competitors’ advantages, refuse to do the hard work of deciding which businesses to grow and which to squeeze for cash or divest. They operate from a purely tactical mindset, not the focused strategic lens so critical to long-term success. But even when they were behind in the first halves against Arizona and Oregon, the team and Ryan stuck to their game plan. Kaminsky explained the dominating victory over Baylor: “We were well coached. We knew their every move and could predict it from the floor” and had a response.

But that does not mean Bo’s model does not evolve. This season he closed gaps in free throw shooting and finally built an offense worthy of its defense. With Wisconsin behind in the first half against Arizona, and mounting fouls, Barkley calmed my nerves by saying the team was experimenting to discover which defense would work best.

Wisconsin will next encounter Kentucky, a team designed around one-year talents headed to the NBA. They will be bigger, more athletic, and hungry for larger NBA signing bonuses. Their coach finally figured out how to create team effort; but, if stressed, his players’ instincts will lead them to try to win as individuals.
If the Badgers can continue to play their game, we will hopefully see them in Monday’s final. America is drawn to the Badgers because the team speaks to our deeper wisdom. We all stand on the shoulders of others when we achieve a goal. Our culture tells us to ignore what’s below your feet. We do so at our peril.

What are you doing to weave the core value of gratitude and belief in the power of a team into your organization and community?

Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. She was an economic advisor for former Wisconsin Gov. Lee Dreyfus.

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