Leadership lessons to be learned from Bo Ryan

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:14 pm

In my opinion, Bo Ryan isn’t only the University of Wisconsin’s most successful coach and the best in Big Ten history; he is the best coach in the country.

After transforming Division III basketball during his tenure as the head coach at UW-Platteville during the 1984-1999 seasons, Bo went on to elevate the UW-Milwaukee program to new levels from 1999 to 2001 and in Madison from 2001 through to today. After Bo was awarded Big Ten Coach of the Year and enjoyed a big win in the 2015 Big Ten championship game, the Badgers are now in the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed.

My relationship with Bo goes back many years when I knew him in Madison in 1976. I had the privilege of working with Bo as I helped negotiate his initial contract with UW-Milwaukee in 1999 and with Wisconsin back in 2001 while I was a sports agent. I have been incredibly blessed to further my relationship with Bo over the years, celebrate his incredible successes, and most recently, work with his team to introduce and begin implementing the principles shared in my book, “Moving the Needle,” in October of 2014.

During the “Moving the Needle” strategy sessions with the Badgers last October, the group of young men blew me away by their drive, focus and commitment to being a part of something bigger than themselves.

Not only has this team set records in the areas of points and wins, they’ve also ranked highest among student athletes for grade point average. Bo and his coaching staff have done an incredible job identifying young men who have a strong foundation in the areas of commitment, community involvement, leadership, and work ethic. Having that foundation is incredibly important. However, it is equally important for these players to have the structure and guidance required to further develop over time.

Bo Ryan has proven to be the best individual for the job – and we can all reflect on this coach’s five winning leadership lessons:

1. Teach a system.

There is a reason why Bo gets more out of his players than any other coach. He follows a methodical system that is likely stemmed from the many stories and learnings he has shared from his father. His style is not flashy – just simple fundamentals done consistently over an extended period of time. One of his more tactical systems is his swing offense that was developed at UW-Platteville. With this system, all five players are interchangeable. It is deliberate and with a high percentage of inside shots and free throws – every possession is important. The system also requires each man to let go of any selfish habits and learn incredible teamwork with a premium on good passes, screening and cutting. It is a system that is very difficult to defend against.

2. Buy-in is important.

The most highly-touted athletes are not typically the guys that Bo seeks out in regard to recruitment. He recruits the type of person that will fit into the system. The process of finding these great young men starts with getting his coaching team and the student’s parents to buy in. Bo does a great job upfront with communicating his system and philosophy. In addition, his ability to manage expectations is what truly sets him apart.

3. Mediocrity is not tolerated.

In 2013, Bo was quoted in a USA Today feature saying, “I recruit hungry kids, kids that love the game and want to get better and feel they have more questions than answers. It is very hard to find, but we’ve got ’em.” Great leaders differentiate themselves in what they tolerate, and what they don’t. If you are someone who tolerates mediocrity in yourself, it’s likely you tolerate it in others. A trait of a great leader, and definitely one that Bo possesses, is an intolerance for mediocrity – or rather, someone who is satisfied with mediocrity. Expecting a higher standard for yourself and those around you is what really moves the needle for a team – separating the good, from the great.

4. Do the little things.

People say in basketball that little things mean a lot. Bo disagrees…the little things mean everything. Winning big games is not about making great shots or game-winning plays. It is about doing the little things down the stretch better than anyone else. How often have you seen championships won by a team that wasn’t perceived to be extraordinary? Or a company sales team win a big award that seemed to be a long shot? It’s likely that these teams, like Bo’s, focused at least 80 percent in preparation for execution. The more players you have on your team focusing on the little things, the greater long-term success you will have. Another legendary coach, John Wooden, taught his players how to put on their socks and shoes in a very particular way each day. When asked about this, he replied, “The little things matter. All I need is one little wrinkle in one sock to put a blister on one foot – and it could ruin my whole season. I started teaching about shoes and socks early in my career, and I saw that it really did cut down on blisters during the season. That little detail gave us an edge.” Coach Wooden, like Bo Ryan, knew the long-term impact of the little things.

5. Develop others to be the best versions of him or herself.

In all the time that I have known Bo, he has always said, “I am only a teacher.” As a teacher, his objective is to develop young men to be the best version of themselves. Bo doesn’t worry too much about the competition. He knows that if he teaches his players to be the best version of themselves, they will perform at a high level and with confidence both on and off the court. Bo understands that confidence is the emotional knowing that you are prepared for anything and as a superior teacher, he instills that in his players every day.

Whether you are a Wisconsin Badger fan or not, it is hard to deny the charismatic and disciplined approach of coach Bo Ryan. As someone who has experienced tremendous accomplishments in college basketball, we look forward to what will hopefully be another great achievement in the weeks to come with the NCAA Tournament. But regardless of how Wisconsin’s season ends, Bo Ryan will always be known as an all-time great leader and an overall great person.

Joe Sweeney is the former owner and now a strategic director at Corporate Financial Advisors LLC in Milwaukee. He is an author, consultant and speaker. This blog was originally published at www.joesweeney.com and is republished by BizTimes with permission from the author.

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