Diversity and Culture – a lesson from an elite sport

“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game” ~  Lou Gerstner

What can leaders learn from pro athletes ? After all, elite professional athletes are known to be paid stupefying amounts, be full of ego, selfish, etc etc etc.

Except…perhaps not…read this closing to a lengthy, passionate and erudite open letter written by a superstar player who has earned well over $100m in his career and felt to come to the defence of someone in that sport, that league. In this, he stands up for diversity and for the feeling of family. You can sense his pride and passion.

Can you guess the sport and the league? :

“I just think it’s this beautiful thing, you know, to see {our sport/league} begin to reflect the larger world. Because it’s such a big world, isn’t it? And I think any time you can expand your horizons, toward something new and meaningful … it can only make you a better person.

Which is also why I’m so encouraged to see this league taking the lead on so many important issues. I see it when we’re coming together over something as urgent as Black Lives Matter … I see it when {star players} are being vocal and open about emotional wellbeing … I see it when our commissioner is marching in an LGBTQ pride parade … I see it when MVPs keep showing the world that nobody is too famous to use their platform to stand up for what they believe in … and of course, I see it when a franchise is willing to give an interview for their head-coaching vacancy to a candidate who — male or female — absolutely deserves it.

I see it everywhere now in this league, and it fills me with pride.

Because to me, this league — it’s a family. And one of the things that comes with being a family … it’s that you’re the ones who can be the most critical of each other. You’re the ones who can most tell it to each other like it is. Because at the end of the day, you know it’s all love.

So what I would say to my {sport/league} family right now, I think, is, Hey — let’s all keep up the great work. Let’s be proud. But let’s also not be satisfied.

Let’s recognize that one protest does not mean we have solved the problem of racial inequality in this country. One parade doesn’t mean we’re doing everything we can for the LGBTQ movement. And one coaching interview doesn’t mean we have solved the issue of gender diversity in our workplace.

A more complacent league, it might take a look at these accomplishments — and be comfortable saying, O.K., we did it, we’re finished. But this is not a complacent league.

It’s a great league.

And to me, a great league would take a look at this, and say, We’ve come a long way, and we’ve shown a lot of growth … but there’s still a lot more growing left for us to do. A great league would say, Yes, this is progress — but it isn’t the finish line.

Wait and see. We’re just getting started.”

How was your guessing? Did you guess this was Basketball and the league he is talking about is the NBA ?

Basketball is a sport I have loved to be part of more than any other, and it is a game that simply cannot be won with a group of superstars alone. As the old saying goes, there is no “I” in the word “Team”. The very best know that the way to win is by a healthy dissolution of ego within a team construct. A healthy culture, in other words.

This excerpt is from “An Open Letter About Female Coaches” written very recently by Pau Gasol, a Spanish superstar player who has been a top player and leader with a number of NBA teams and now finds himself with a team that I believe, above all others, exemplifies a positive and healthy culture within the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs.

Of the hundreds of posts on this site, one of my favourites to write was “Humble Leadership – “that’s family business”, which is all about the San Antonio Spurs and their culture.

Oh, and the coach Pau is supporting is a great coach. Becky Hammon is, flat out, a great coach. Absolutely no need to label her a female coach, and I hope the time comes soon that leaders like Pau don’t feel the need to knock down such prejudices.

If you are a business or organisational leader, would the people in your team talk this way in support of their colleagues? Would they refer to their place of work as a family? If not, would you like to see that? What would you invest to make that happen? What would be the return on that investment ?

I leave you with this quote on culture. I wrote very recently about curiosity, perhaps if you are curious you can look up Aimé Césaire too.

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