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5 Leadership Lessons from Tom Izzo

March 21, 2013 • Uncategorized

As March Madness tips off today, I take a closer look at Michigan State University men’s head basketball coach Tom Izzo, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with for years. Coach Izzo has been the head coach at MSU since 1995. In that time, he has taken the Spartans to 16 straight NCAA Tournaments, 6 Final Fours, and 1 National Championship.

1. Listen. Normally you think about a player listening to his coach and not the other way around.  But one of the things that makes Tom a great coach is that he knows how to listen to his team.  When we forget to listen we lose our grasp as a leader.  He told me once, “Learn to listen and listen to learn.  Your players are always telling you something- good or bad- they are telling you something.”  He used the example of his 2000 national championship team.  One of his veteran players told him the players would benefit from one hard practice instead of the usual practice and walkthrough in preparation.  In the biggest moment of his coaching career, he listened to a 22-year old kid.  It paid off with a national championship.

2. Stay grounded.  Tom is probably one of the most recognizable figures on Michigan State’s campus and he embraces it.  Wind, snow, or rain, you can probably still find him on a run throughout campus or maybe chatting with students from the “Izzone.”  He is a blue collar coach and proud of it.  I’ve never taken Tom a deal with Burberry, and I’m not sure he would accept it if I did. I think he would prefer Levi’s.

3. Discipline is Love.  Discipline is still the greatest form of love.  Tom said this to me one time when we were talking about the challenges of recruiting and coaching kids.  Have you ever wondered why he can light a player up during a game?  It’s because he spends so much time with them.  And spending time with a player gives you the ability to discipline.  What you don’t see is him showing up to a kid’s dorm to walk to class with him and just talk.  He’s not just a coach but a father figure to a lot of his players.  He loves them like his own kids.  In fact, his middle son’s name is “Mateen” after one of his former players.

4. Prepare early for success.  Ever notice Michigan State’s early schedule?  The Spartans regularly put traditional powerhouses on the non-conference schedule.  Tom loves giving his guys a taste of the tournament early on.  It’s a chance for the team to gel and evaluate strengths and weaknesses.  For Tom, it’s a chance to see how his team handles success, how they handle failure and how they respond to adversity.

5. Instill accountability.  One of the first things Tom has his players do when they set foot on campus is list their goals for their time at Michigan State.  It’s different for every player.  It might be to win a conference or NCAA championship.  Get drafted in the NBA.  Graduate in four years.  Tom knows what each of these goals requires so he gets his players’ buy-in early on.  He reminds them of their goals and what they have to do to get there.  He gets permission for his players right then to hold them accountable for the next four years.

The Molly Fletcher Company inspires leaders, teams and organizations to up their game. A keynote speaker and author, Molly draws on her decades of experiences working as a sports agent. She is the founder of Game Changer Performance Group, which offers training and coaching programs to help leaders unleash their potential, including: Negotiation: Maximize Your Influence, which teaches business people a framework for successful negotiating; Energy: Optimize Your Focus, which teaches people how to manage their energy to achieve focus and freedom; and High Impact: Elevate Your Power Skills, which is in development now and will supercharge your organization’s performance. Sign up to receive our newsletter, subscribe to the Game Changers with Molly Fletcher podcast, and watch her TED Talk on The Secrets to a Champion Mindset, which has been viewed more than 1 million times.