By Aaron Butler, Ph.D. - June 21, 2023
The Denver Nuggets just won the 2023 NBA Finals. It was their first championship in franchise history, but it may not be their last. Over the course of the playoffs this year, their leader and Finals MVP Nikola Jokic, consistently displayed his undeniable talent on the basketball court through great all-around play. He wasn’t their leading scorer in every game, but when his team needed a big play the ball was usually in his hands and up to him to make the best decision for that moment. More often than not, the decisions he made worked out as he led his team to victory after victory on their championship run.
Great leaders obviously come in many shapes and sizes across different fields. We’re not all 7 feet tall or blessed with superior basketball skills. However, as I was watching the NBA playoffs I couldn’t help but wonder if there is a lesson that leaders from any profession can learn from NBA stars like Jokic? Ultimately, I think so. As the Nuggets kept winning throughout the playoffs, one consistent narrative began to emerge. Jokic was being compared to other all-time great champions like Magic Johnson and LeBron James for his ability to not only score, but also contribute to team success by passing and rebounding. Game after game, he kept producing triple-doubles. What is a triple-double? In basketball, a player records a triple-double when they register 10 or more in three categories among points, assists, rebounds, blocks, or steals. The most common categories are points, rebounds, and assists.
So, how does a triple-double in basketball relate to you as a school or district leader?
Great leaders consistently show the ability to perform at high levels in their areas of responsibility. However, they don’t stop with just their personal performance. Great leaders are also committed to raising the performance of their team members. Great leaders demonstrate Triple-Double Leadership.
What is Triple-Double Leadership?
I think of Triple-Double Leadership as a leader’s ability to perform their personal job responsibilities at a high level as well as elevate the performance of their team members. In other words, great leaders know how to score, assist their teammates, and help their team and themselves rebound from mistakes. So, if you are looking to lead your school, district, or organization to championship level performance, take some time this summer to reflect on the following components of your leadership.
Triple-Double Leaders score.
The primary way to win basketball games is to put the basketball through the hoop. It’s a fairly simple idea, but not always easy to do. As a school or district leader you have some primary job responsibilities for your role that only you can fulfill. It is important that you demonstrate the ability to perform those responsibilities at a high level and you can’t and shouldn’t expect to delegate everything. Although every school or district is different, you are probably expected to conduct formal evaluations of staff, answer questions from staff, parents, and community members, make multiple decisions throughout the day, and ensure your organizational culture is conducive to learning. Also, any memo, email, or newsletter that is sent out and includes your signature reflects you and your ability to “score” with students, staff, and parents. Everyone connected to your school or district is paying attention to how you meet these demands of your job as well as your reputation with other details such as meeting deadlines, communicating with others, and producing the highest quality work with positive results. What are the ways you can demonstrate your ability to “score” as a leader?
Triple-Double Leaders assist their teammates.
It’s not enough for great leaders to just perform or score on their own. Although it is likely you are in your current leadership role because you demonstrate the ability to get things done on your own, to lead your team to championship level performance, you will eventually need help from others. However, I am not just talking about delegating tasks to others, but also intentionally setting your teammates up for success that will benefit them and the long-term goals of your school or district. As an aspiring school administrator, I was blessed to have a building leader that supported my growth and gave me opportunities to lead in the building while still serving as a classroom teacher. I was given opportunities to shadow assistant principals, serve and take on leadership roles on school and district-level task forces, and serve as a mathematics department chair. These opportunities helped me build confidence in my leadership abilities and, I’d like to think, contributed to improving the culture and quality of learning in the school and district. Do you consistently look for opportunities where others can shine or display their talents and then give them the chance to “score”? Are you helping create conditions to grow more leaders in your organization?
Triple-Double Leaders rebound mistakes.
The greatest players throughout history were not perfect. Sometimes they missed the mark. However, as a leader it is important for you to always be on the lookout for opportunities to help your teammates, and even yourself, learn from mistakes. One of the primary ways to help rebound for your teammates as a school or district leader is by providing relevant, constructive feedback. I’m not just talking about the formal evaluation process, but those everyday interactions where you can help your team improve in real time. For example, as a supervisor you could use a simple 2 x 2 feedback model to have a 1 minute conversation with a principal after attending a faculty meeting or with a teacher after an impromptu classroom visit. These types of simple, focused feedback discussions can help your teammates build confidence while also building their skills. Does your team know when and where they have the freedom to innovate? Do they have confidence that you will be there to support them and their learning along the way, even when they make mistakes?
Are there any other ways I can lead my team?
While I have mostly focused on the offensive categories, there are times when Triple-Double Leaders need to flex their defensive skills too. For example, as a leader, there may be times that you need to block distractions or take away unnecessary or duplicative procedures that are impacting your team’s ability to be productive. Are there any systems or processes in place in your school or district that, if removed or modified, could free up additional time for your staff to work on more important aspects of their job?
Where do I start?
I hope we can all agree that great leadership is needed and appreciated whether you are a sports fan or not. The specific mix of skills and competencies needed for success may differ depending on the context or industry, but I believe the idea of Triple-Double Leadership rings true no matter the situation. The Denver Nuggets have been a good team over the past several years, but not necessarily a championship favorite. Their championship run this season has changed that narrative and it all starts with their leader. Sometimes leaders like Nikola Jokic just have to get the job done on their own and score. However there are many other times when leaders can and should create conditions for others to grow and shine on their own. Those are the moments when leaders like Jokic and you have the chance to create a team that is bigger and better than you could be on your own. A team that is built for sustained championship success.
I encourage you to take time this week and over the summer months to reflect on your leadership and your team. Practice the components of Triple-Double Leadership and ask yourself some of the questions that I have shared with you here. But don’t stop there. Look for other questions and resources to support your leadership growth and then, find an open teammate and pass it along.
Aaron R. Butler, PhD, is a former high school math and science teacher and school administrator. He now serves as the director for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and a principal technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Dr. Butler has more than 20 years of experience supporting school improvement in public education spanning school, district, state, and national levels.