Part of the job of leadership is keeping the team motivated and instilling a sense of urgency. Left to our own devices, it’s easy to become complacent and slow. Is there a story that can inspire your team to face each opportunity as if it were the last, and not accept failures as temporary inevitabilities? Fortunately, there is. In fact, I’m sure there are many. Here is my favorite.
The 2004 season was destined to be a rebuilding year for this small-town high school basketball program in Arkansas. Most of the boys on the starting lineup were juniors. In fact, the entire squad had only one returning senior. This wasn’t a team anyone expected great things from. And as anticipated, the first half of the season, they won some and lost some. But in the second half they won almost every game, earning a berth in the state playoffs. It was an exciting time for a bunch of kids who weren’t supposed to be there in the first place.
The state tournament
Winning in the first round made their presence feel justified instead of like a fluke. When they won their second and third games by double-digit margins, it became clear they really did have a legitimate shot at the state title. When they won the semifinal game and landed in the state finals, it was like a scene out of the movie Hoosiers. This team of young, unproven juniors would play the defending champions— a team full of college prospects. It was a real David versus Goliath matchup.
The game was tight, going into double overtime. With about 15 seconds left, the underdogs had the ball and called a time-out. The coach called the play. They inbounded the ball to their star player, the point guard who had played a great game and rarely made mistakes. His job was to let the clock run down a few seconds before starting the play to take the last shot. In the excitement, however, he made a mistake. He let his defender stay too close to him for more than 5 seconds without passing. Their opponents took possession with less than 10 seconds left. Its star player drove to the basket, was fouled, and sank two free throws to win the game.
Having been so close to victory after such an improbable string of wins, it was a crushing defeat for the players and their supporters. One of those supporters was Jeff Strong. His daughter was a good friend of one of the players, so he followed every game with anticipation. Jeff asked the player, “So, what’d you think about the game?”
The young man’s response was surprisingly nonchalant.
No big deal. We’re all juniors. We’ll all be back next year and win it for sure.
It was exactly the kind of thing caring parents would say to console their child after a bitter loss. No doubt, every player on the team was repeating the same mantra within hours of the game. Jeff agreed with the boy and offered his own words of encouragement for next year. But inside, he couldn’t help but think that this team had been given a great gift. And perhaps, unfortunately, they had missed their opportunity. The chance to play for state championships, even for great teams, is a rare thing, indeed.
The next year, the whole starting lineup was back, this time as seniors. This year, they were the team to beat, the heavy favorite to win the state title. The season started just like everyone expected. They went undefeated the entire season and earned the number-one seed in the state championship. As is typical, the highest-seeded teams are paired with the lowest-seeded teams early in the bracket to give the best teams the best chance to win and ultimately reach the finals. Unfortunately, in the first round— against a team they were highly favored to beat— they lost. Those players never got that second chance in the state finals they’d hoped for.
Does this disappointing end suggest the well-meaning parental advice that consoled the boys a year earlier was in poor judgment? Of course not. Nothing would be gained by brooding over a lost opportunity once the opportunity truly is past. But what if someone had that attitude before the opportunity was past? How would it affect people’s behavior if they thought, “There will always be another opportunity”? The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t try as hard. If there’s always another opportunity, then there’s nothing to lose by letting this opportunity slip. That’s the thought that stuck in Jeff’s head after that bitter defeat in the state finals, because he’s seen that attitude in business many times— people failing to seize an opportunity because they think, “There’s always a next time.” What this experience taught Jeff was that there isn’t always a next time.
Today, as executive vice president of Sun Products, Jeff tells that story when he comes across someone who isn’t engaged as much as he or she needs to be. Every lost sale, for example, is a lost sale. You might win the business back next year, but you can’t ever get back the lost sale from this year. Jeff’s story helps people appreciate the opportunity they have today as a gift and motivates them to perform like it’s the last game of the state finals, with no “next year” to fall back on.
Perhaps you have a similar story in your past you can draw on to inspire a team to success now, and not later. And if you didn’t before, now you do.
[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]
Paul Smith is a one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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