Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Leadership Reinvention

Volume: February 2016

They say a successful marriage is falling in love with the same person again and again and again. Something similar can be said for leading a successful organization. Having a successful business calls for the organization to reinvent itself again and again and again.

We live in an exciting time. Breakthroughs in science, medicine, physics, and technology happen on a weekly basis. These advances bring complexity and opportunity to our work lives. As leaders, it is our duty to ensure our organization’s relevance despite the changes around us. Maintaining and accelerating relevance is no easy task. There are countless businesses and not-for-profits that remained stagnant for years, and in the process lost their relevance in the marketplace. They failed to reinvent themselves. Which brings me to one of my favorite reinvention stories. And while I am not a fan of the sports team in the story, I truly admire the end result.

In the 1980’s Chuck Daly was tapped on the shoulder to coach the Detroit Pistons. He did fairly well and led the team into the NBA playoffs. In fact, they became the highest scoring team in the league. Year after year, however, they got spanked (a basketball term for not winning) in the playoffs. While still successful by many measures, the team was seemingly underachieving. Chuck Daly grew frustrated and sought to lead his team to a higher level of success. What did he do? He analyzed his team’s situation and potential. In addition, he analyzed the competition and various trends in the league. Finally, he came to two conclusions: 1. Defense wins championships. 2. He needed to transform the Pistons into the best defensive team in the league. He also became obsessed with winning the NBA championship, and not simply making it to the playoffs.

When Coach Daly approached his team about becoming the best defensive team in the league, the players laughed. They all thought he was joking. Their smiles dissipated however, as Chuck’s unwavering, steely stare informed them that he was dead serious. Ultimately, the team reached a consensus and decided they would do whatever it took to become the best defensive team in the league. It took hard work and dedication – those of you who are basketball players know that it takes more energy to play defense than offense. Also, defense is a lot less fun. Soon the Pistons were nowhere near the top of the league in offense. They had, however, become the best defensive team in the game.

What happened to Chuck Daly’s Detroit Pistons? Well, by 1989 they were world champions. In fact, they became back-to-back champions. So what can we learn today that Chuck and his team discovered in the 1980’s? Something exciting really – powerful reinventions can occur with the same leader and the same team! That’s right, the Pistons experienced a dramatic transformation with predominately the same people, and found heightened success.

Just how the heck did big Chuck and the “Bad Boy” Pistons do it? They followed five core principles:

  1. They pragmatically analyzed their current situation and created an attainable vision.
  2. They communicated effectively.
  3. A consensus was reached that created buy-in, commitment, and a sense of excitement.
  4. Measures, metrics, and dashboards were crafted in order to track and rank progress.
  5. Excellent execution, targeted coaching, and unabashed celebration took place along the way.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at Chuck Daly. He totally reinvented himself in order to lead his team where they needed to go. In other words, he decided that the team did not need a new leader or new players. He decided that the team needed a new direction and perspective. In addition, he was confident that he possessed the kind of vision and skills that were necessary to lead his team to the Promised Land.

It has been my observation that leaders frequently become comfortable and set in their ways with regard to certain leadership styles, techniques, and language. Heck, it makes logical sense. When you hone habits and actions that catapult you to success why not stick with them? By relying on the same winning formula year after year, however, leaders can sometimes become stale or passé. Insightful leaders seek to remain agile. After all, their workforce is constantly changing, their pace of business is quickening, and globalization is altering their competitive and opportunistic landscape. The best leaders engage in continual reinvention as they enhance their winning formula to best fit in a changing world. Reinvention offers an opportunity to remain relevant and effective.

Consider this: In the 20th century, Penn Central Railroad (once an incredible company) failed. Why did Penn Central fail? Answer: their leaders thought they were in the railroad industry – so that was the only marketplace in which they competed. In reality, they were part of the transportation industry. As such, they should have developed competitive product lines for automobiles, trucks, airlines, and shipping. They did not reinvent even though they had ample opportunity and resources to do so. The result: when the marketplace changed and competition heated up, Penn Central went out of business. Our job in the 21st century is to not fall into the same complacency trap. In fact, my advice to all organizations is to consider reinventing yourself every two to four years.

How do we avoid Penn Central’s fate? As leaders we can propel our success and lead our teams to greater heights by embracing a five-part approach.

Part I: Analysis, Agility, and Visioning 

Part II: Communication 

Part III: Setting the Course and Creating Buy-In

Part IV: Measures, Metrics, and Structure 

Part V: Execution, Coaching, and Celebration

Bottom Line: In order for an organization to reinvent, its leaders must deepen and broaden their skills to continually elevate overall performance. For life-long learners who desire to grow, it is an exciting prospect filled with limitless opportunity. The team wins, the leader wins, and the marketplace wins!

Until next time, be well.

Doug Van Dyke is a Tampa Bay based executive coach, leadership development expert, and strategic planner. To learn more about leadership development programs, coaching, strategic planning, or to have Doug speak at your next event, visit www.leadershipsimplified.com or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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