Ask any Lakers fan about the team’s last season, and you’ll find that the word “disappointment” might be an understatement. The Los Angeles Lakers, one of the greatest teams in National Basketball Association (NBA) history, didn’t win a single game in the postseason this year — and it was the first time they didn’t make it to the May playoffs since 1978. It could be considered the team’s worst season of all time. Is this failure — or could it be something else?
First, let’s start by defining “failure.” This is a topic I speak on a lot and I’ve come to discover that the two most common definitions of failure are “an unsuccessful person, enterprise, or thing,” or “a lack of success.” But here’s the interesting thing about these common definitions: They’re both subjective. If a “successful” Lakers season was to exceed a .500 average of wins-to-losses, then it’s time to celebrate. If “success” is defined by winning the championship, then the Lakers failed. Which is it? It all depends on the individual — or team.
So, by this definition, was the Lakers’ season a failure? ESPN’s J.A. Adande explained it perfectly: “Never in league history has there been a greater gap between expectations and their results.” This isn’t a matter of failure or success; it’s a matter of skewed expectations. And that’s not just something a team can control. It’s something that a team — or a business — creates, carries, and encourages.
Anticipation and failure go hand-in-hand. In basketball, the link is obvious: Media and fans turn excitement into larger-than-life expectations, which almost always end in disappointment. But it isn’t limited to sports: Business leaders often are caught in the same paradox. They have to speak with certainty and conviction to bring their new endeavors to life; when things don’t go as well as planned, they’re left with displeased investors and disappointed customers.
Shareholders and stock analysts want to know that leadership is making wise investments, and employees want their leaders to be confident in their vision. And both groups are frustrated when that expectation doesn’t come to fruition. That’s why the best leaders aren’t the ones who try to predict success or failure. They’re the ones who can effectively manage internal and external expectations.
Leadership is Key
The Lakers’ story proves it: Having the greatest talent and a solid game plan doesn’t ensure success. And in the business world, the actions that create success and failure aren’t always defined with black-and-white clarity, either. Often, the difference is in the leadership that’s motivating players and strategies. That’s why the same kind of conversations should be happening in the locker room and in executives’ offices.
Here are a few ways that leaders can support their teams through stressful situations with high expectations:
- Communication. Leaders need to hear the challenges that their teams are facing and guide them through the journey effectively, empathetically, and clearly.
- Emotional intelligence. Leaders need be able to recognize when a key employee is about to burn out — just like a coach needs to realize when a tired player needs to rest before he injures himself.
- Encouragement. Sometimes, a leader or coach just needs to give encouragement through a difficult period. Star employees — like star athletes — are extremely self-motivated and hold themselves to very high standards. When times get tough, they often blame themselves. While these stars may seem superhuman, they still need encouragement from a strong leader.
If the Lakers’ coaches take the time to truly understand what happened during their season, we can expect to see great things next year. It’s not going to be easy: Creating, executing, and perfecting a successful leadership strategy can take years, with unavoidable conflicts and problems. But as long as team members and leaders are all learning from their failures along the way, the investment isn’t a wasted one. It’s an opportunity to grow.
Renew, Rethink, and Rebuild
After this last season, how should the Lakers move forward? After a bad year, failed product, or lost account, how should business leaders forge ahead? It’s the same answer for businesses and sports teams alike: honest, thoughtful reflection and well-planned action.
It’s always worthwhile to take time to self-assess, whether you’re looking at quarterly goals or a season. The Lakers’ coaches need to take a hard look at the past decade or two and reevaluate the strategy of using older players in key positions for long time periods. The same strategy applies to business, too. Managers and executives need to take the time to reflect on their leadership process and their employees’ talents and weaknesses. No one wants to admit to failure, but choosing to ignore it means you’re even more likely to repeat it. It’s important to discover the root cause, confront it, and then share those lessons with the entire team.
Next season, the Los Angeles Lakers might emerge as a stronger, smarter, and more self-aware team than ever before. That’s why failure isn’t always necessarily a “failure” — sometimes, it’s just another way to forge a path to success.