A Few Lessons from XU Basketball

Some of you may know that my husband, Mario Mercurio, is the Associate AD for Basketball Administration at Xavier University. If you follow college basketball, you may have seen that Xavier will be in the Sweet 16 this upcoming weekend. It’s a very exciting time.

I am learning a lot about leadership watching head coach, Sean Miller, lead the program this year.

True leadership is leading through others. Leadership is empowering others to do their best work and fostering a culture where we bring out the best in each other. You can feel when you are a part of greatness, and I can feel it when I’m around this basketball program. But it’s more than a feeling, there is hard work and great intentionality that goes into this program on a daily basis. While I don’t claim to know the half of it, and I certainly don’t claim to be a basketball expert, I am seeing qualities emerge that I think we can learn from especially in the field of education. Why especially? Our bread and butter is nurturing human growth and development.

Below are just a few lessons that have been top of mind for me recently.

Be Specific

The plan does not need to be complicated. The plan needs to be clear. It is very clear what is expected of all involved with this program. As I mention in my upcoming book, people can’t hit a target they can’t see. Brene Brown says, “Clear is kind.” It is kind to make the expectations very clear. In doing so, we make it more likely that others can achieve those expectations. I’ve worked in places where I was asked to do something and produced what I believed was being asked of me only to find out that this was not what the individual had in mind. That’s a culture killer. People can’t read minds and shouldn’t have to work hard to figure out what is needed. The more time and energy that is spent navigating unclear rules of engagement or work expectations the less time we can spend on the work that really matters. Whether it’s quality basketball or teaching children to read or norms for team meetings, being specific and clear is kind. That’s not to say that we must dictate every tiny move that is made. This is not about having all teachers on the same page of the same book every day. Having room to apply our unique talents and abilities to the work is vital. But the big plays, big instructional and curriculum decisions? Clear is kind. Holding people accountable for their greatest potential and supporting them on the path to getting there- epic levels of kindness. What a great way to change the world through others.

Honor Good Work

I’ve noticed during press conferences that when Sean Miller is impressed by the work of the opposing team, he speaks about it, quite eloquently, and with specificity, so it’s believable. This is not limited to opposing teams, of course. The same holds true with his team and with the Xavier fanbase. Last night, I watched him give a speech to a large group of students who were waiting for the team bus to arrive back at campus. They were waiting there with signs and loud cheers to congratulate the team on the big win. In a short, thoughtful speech to the crowd, Sean let the fans know that this moment they had created for the team meant just as much to the team as it did to the fans. He explain that the fans are “What has inspired our team so many times…the student section, what the Cintas Center feels like, and your passion for our program…” He’s not wrong. The way arenas feel impacts the game. Every person who puts their belief into a program and their positive energy into a game can share in the wins and losses. We all want to feel like we matter, like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, and like our hard work is noticed. When we see someone go out of their way to ensure the success of our students and programs, we should tell them with great specificity, so it’s genuine, just how much they mean to us. Honor the good work.

Lead Through Others

I’ve recently taken note of some player actions on the court. I’ve seen XU players ensuring that they are communicating with each other, talking it out, coaching each other up. Yesterday, I watched Jack Nunge, upon fouling out of a game, take moments to encourage and hype up Cesare Edwards who was playing in his position. During timeouts, you could see him taking a few moments to share wisdom and words of encouragement. Seeing players take good care of their teammates and hold them accountable really hypes me up. Seeing teachers and students do the same is equally energizing. Alone we can do so little, together we can do much more. We are never too young or too low in position to make a positive impact on others. When everyone does their part, the work gets better. It’s not just important that the teacher know every students’ name and have a meaningful relationship with them; it’s important that the students in the class do as well. When more of us spend time building a sense of care, belonging, and community, the conditions for human development are nourished. Certainly, there are distinct differences between college basketball programs and classes that students are required to take and teachers are required to teach. But the lesson is the same, and the need of leading through others is paramount in all settings.

If we want to change the world, we can start by changing ourselves and then create the conditions that allow others to do the same.

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