Leadership and Tough Love

In sports and in business we readily recognize the need to be tough, but we often fail to see the need for love. Yet love is necessary because a coach, or a leader usually has to transform a group from patterns of self-interested conflict to cohesive, focused effort. A great team, like a great leader, maintains both a tough, disciplined focus on the task and a cohesive set of relationships full of trust and love.

A good example is the story of Pat Riley while coaching the New York Knicks, a basketball team that was riddled with internal competition and composed of warring cliques. The competition between the cliques led the players to define each other negatively and provided justification for more competition between them. They became trapped in a vicious cycle (Riley, 1993).

One day Riley made a tough intervention that transformed the team. He stood up and named the members and characteristics of each clique. Then he had the players rearrange their chairs and sit in their cliques. The exercise was simple but very graphic. Riley was communicating his message at a level that everyone could understand. He was showing them the emergent reality that they were choosing to create but did not want to see.

This kind of feedback usually stimulates anger – and Riley’s players were angry. They did not enjoy looking at their own foolish freedom. Instead of chastising them, Riley talked to them about positive values like tolerance, openness, and team spirit – values akin to love. Before this moment, the Knicks were surviving, but they were heading toward slow death. They needed to be reinvented. Riley’s intervention was one dramatic moment that was part of a much larger pattern in which he transformed the team and led them into the playoffs.  (Quinn, Building the Bridge as you Walk on it – pg. 185)

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